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The water beneath its wings

County leases ‘Super Scooper’ planes, crew from Quebec each year

Posted: September 18, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 18, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Los Angeles County Fire Department conducts a training exercise in the hills near Castaic on Sept. 7 with the CL 415 "Super Scooper" planes as brush season approaches. The planes are leased from September through December and are used to combat wildfires.

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VAN NUYS — It’s got to be 100-plus degrees, and Los Angeles County fire Capt. Jeff Britton is standing in the shade of one of the expansive wings of a Super Scooper airplane when he notices the smoke.

Looking to the south toward the Sepulveda Pass, he watches as a brownish cloud slowly climbs higher into the blue afternoon sky.

Across the tarmac, the Los Angeles Fire County Department’s helicopters are already whirring to life. It’s Friday afternoon, and it looks as though things may get busy at the Van Nuys Fire Tanker Base.

Britton noticed the brush fire — which would wind up burning through 90-plus acres near the Getty Center — while in the midst of discussing the two, bright yellow CL-415 Super Scooper air tankers that arrived at the base late last month.

This is the 19th year that Los Angeles County has leased the big planes from the government of Quebec. They usually arrive in late August and stay into November — Southern California’s peak wildfire time.

The planes come at a price tag of about $2.5 million.

The twin-engined planes can scoop up as much as 1,600 gallons of water to drop on a fire. To refill, the pilot skims the surface of a lake, reservoir or the ocean, and the plane’s refilling system sucks up a full tank’s worth in about 30 seconds.

The planes can be airborne in as little as five minutes and can stay in the sky for three hours before needing to refuel.

The county’s roughly $2.5 million contract with Quebec is open-ended, Britton said. While typically the planes — and their Canadian crew, who stay in a Burbank hotel — remain at the base until the end of November, Britton said they’ve stayed as late as February.

“Every single year has the potential to be the worst for fires,” he said. “The only wild card is the winds.” The Super Scoopers are an important tool in the fight against wildfires, Britton said.

In addition to the Super Scoopers, the Van Nuys tanker base is also home to an Erickson Air Crane. The Oregon-based company’s behemoth helicopter carries a load of about 2,600 gallons of water, and the tank can be refilled in about 45 seconds, pilot Mike Lacy said. By comparison, the Fire Department’s water-dropping choppers carry a payload of 1,000 gallons.

“When the fire danger is high and a fire starts, you can’t have enough resources,” Britton said. “Even with all the resources that L.A. County has already. When the big fires break out, it’s not enough. Those three give us a fighting chance.”

Southern California’s fire season is the opposite of Quebec’s, so Britton said the lease agreement is a win-win situation for both areas.

He said the Super Scoopers and Erickson crews are very self-sufficient, and the tanker base crews primarily serves to streamline operations and make sure things go smoothly. When the tanker base is closed for the season, Britton is stationed at Fire Station 114 in Lake Los Angeles.

The Super Scoopers and Air Crane are frequently called out to help other firefighting agencies, Britton said. The U.S. Forest Service requested their help earlier this month when the so-called Williams Fire scorched several square miles in the San Gabriel Mountains.

On Friday, when a wildfire broke out in the hills of the Sepulveda Pass, the Los Angeles Fire Department — which had jurisdiction — eventually called for the tanker base’s help.

While the initial request for the Air Crane was canceled, the Super Scooper crew snapped into action. The planes roared to life and took off into the smoke-choked blue, off to drop load after load of water on the blaze.

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