The Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit will conduct a fire and training exercise in the use of a helitorch, an aerial burn-management tool, at the Whittle Vegetation Management Program site (VMP) west of Angels Camp next week.

The training will begin Tuesday and conclude Friday. Each day, burns will be conducted between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

A helitorch is a fuel tank and flame emission gauge suspended from the bottom of a helicopter used to remove potential fuel from areas surrounding an advancing flame.

Cal Fire Division Chief Jeff Sanders said the instructional course will provide necessary instruction for helicopter pilots, fire captains and firefighters in the use, maintenance and installation of the helitorch in preparation for fire season.

“The importance of this is that it is a tool that we would call high-risk, low-frequency use,” he said. “We are going to do these more often so our staff can go into fire season fully trained. Cal Fire anticipates being involved in more vegetation-management burns to reduce fuel loading in California.”

Used in tandem with bulldozers and conservation crews, the helitorch creates fire lines in the earth, acting as a “catcher's mitt to run the fire into,” Sanders said.

“It’s a tool to help us with vegetation management burns. It’s sometimes safer than having personnel out, and it keeps people from having to walk too far out into fuel that could burn and put them in harm's way,” he said.

The helitorch is particularly effective on environments with chaparral and chamise, he added. Different combinations of ignited gelled fuel are used in varying environments, and it can be employed either in crisis situations or anticipatory burns.

“The majority of time we would use it would be in a control burn or a vegetation-management burn working with a landowner in a critical area to create a fire break or take some of the brush off a landscape,” he said.

The fire training exercise will use three fire engines, three fire crews, two bulldozers and a helicopter.

“Ground resources will be on site to monitor the piles and ensure proper clearance,” a Cal Fire news release said.

Sanders, one of the overseers of operations at the Cal Fire Columbia Air Attack Base, said the Columbia location is one of 10 California bases that maintain a helicopter. The training was prompted, he added, because Columbia Air Attack Base was one of six California stations to receive a “modified and improved torch.”

Once the training is completed, the helicopter stored at the Columbia site will be used on a regional basis as necessary, as far as Yuba County, Fresno County, Tulare County and Nevada County.

“I've been with Cal Fire since 1988, and I’m not aware of doing a training like this,” he said. “It may seem like an odd time, but it's a safe time to do it.”

Columbia will host six pilots, 10 captains and 10 firefighters for the training, some from the local station and others from throughout the region.

“Once they receive the training, they give the training to other staff,” he said.

While at training, the firefighters will be instructed in the proper mixing of the products that gels the fuels emitted by the helitorch, and pilots will be trained on flight procedures and how to use the tool under the helicopter.

The helitorch is one of many tools employed by Cal Fire during crisis situations or managing a controlled burn, Sanders said, including buckets that drop water and fire retardant.

The site is along the east side of the Fowler Peak Lookout.

“The site was chosen because it's centrally located in the unit, it's very close to Columbia,” Sanders said.

The site had been used previously to construct fire lines and conduct heavy-equipment operation classes, he said.

“It has been a wetter year, and we don’t do a lot of burning during drier years. We hope that coming out of a winter like this, we can anticipate doing more safely these types of burns,” he said.

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