Weather Watch

Wildfires can bring tragedy and a need for precautionary measures

Members of Los Padres National Forest,  Cal Fire, the Fire Safe Council of San Luis Obispo and PG&E at the Mt. Lowe communications site.
Members of Los Padres National Forest, Cal Fire, the Fire Safe Council of San Luis Obispo and PG&E at the Mt. Lowe communications site.

In 2005, Brian Bruns and two other members of his crew were killed in the rugged foothills of the Sierras near Chico. They were flying in a P-3 Orion aircraft converted to a fire-retardant tanker while on a training mission. This aircraft can deploy up to 3,000 gallons of life-saving fire retardant to protect firefighters on the ground.

Brian was also a reservist with the U.S. Navy. He flew the P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft with VP-65 at Naval Air Station Point Mugu near Ventura that tracked submarines. He was one of the most liked and accomplished pilots in our squadron. I enjoyed flying with him immensely; he brought out the best in everyone.

He once told me that a Borate Bomber was the fastest way to slow down a wildfire. Today, the fire retardant is a slurry of mostly water and fertilizer. It works by coating the ground and plants with a moisture barrier. This mixture is dyed bright red to allow tanker pilots to deploy a seamless line of retardant in front of an advancing fire.

Tragically, another former Navy P-3 pilot, Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, was killed last week when his S-2 Tracker aircraft crashed while battling a wildfire in Yosemite National Park. When he wasn’t fighting fires, he taught biochemistry at UC Santa Cruz. He leaves behind a wife and two daughters.

The S-2 aircraft that he piloted used to fly from aircraft carriers in the 1950s and ’60s and has since been converted to fight wildfires for Cal Fire. The aircraft’s bomb bay that used to drop torpedoes now drops up to 1,200 gallons of flame retardant from its belly.

The loss of Hunt underscores the severity of way too little rainfall and record-breaking warm temperatures that has left California parched. Everyone has suffered. Groundwater levels have dropped dramatically and left some California communities without water.

Many of the state’s lakes and reservoirs are near or at record-low levels. California’s air quality has significantly worsened, especially in the Central Valley. Ranchers have seen a significant of loss of forage for their herds, and many farmers had their water allotments drastically reduced or eliminated.

But one of the most worrisome consequences of this unprecedented drought and record warm temperatures is the threat of wildfire. Robert Lewin, chief of Cal Fire in San Luis Obispo, told me, “We have never seen such low vegetation moisture levels as we’re experiencing this year.”

The lower the amount of water in plants, the less heat will be required to evaporate the moisture before it will burn. Chief Lewin keeps a wary eye on the sky.

So far this year, San Luis Obispo County has been spared a major wildfire, but many people have vivid memories of years past, including the Highway 41 Fire. Back in 1994, this fire raged east and south of Atascadero and burned 49,000 acres. The fire caused significant power outages and destroyed or damaged numerous homes and structures, including radio and microwave transmission towers and support buildings along the Cuesta Ridge of the Santa Lucia Mountains.

“That fast-moving wildfire affected all of us when we needed power and communication the most,” Chief Lewin said. “This year, due to the extreme fire behavior potential, there is significant high risk for a similar devastating wildfire.”

On Friday, PG&E and the Fire Safe Council of San Luis Obispo announced a partnership to help reduce the risk of wildfire in San Luis Obispo County. During an event at the Mt. Lowe communications site near Cuesta Pass, PG&E provided $163,500 to the fire council to support needed fuel reduction, infrastructure protection and defensible space projects throughout the county. Part of these funds will be used to establish defensible space around vital radio, TV and cellular tower locations along the Cuesta Ridge.

“It’s been 20 years since the infamous 41 fire,” said San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Frank Mecham, who is also president of the Fire Safe Council. “We need to continue our efforts at protecting our critical infrastructure before another major fire strikes. These projects do just that. We appreciate the public/private partnership our Fire Safe Council has fostered with PG&E.”

“Wildfires are a huge risk in San Luis Obispo County — a threat that will only intensify as the ongoing drought continues to impact our region,” said Pat Mullen, PG&E’s local division director. “PG&E is proud to help our customers prevent wildfires in the area and protect critical infrastructure. We live and work in this community, and there’s nothing more important to us than the safety of local residents.”