The Cal Fire Columbia Air Attack base will be the recipient of a $25 million firefighting helicopter within the next three years as the state forestry and fire protection agency updates its Vietnam War-era helicopter fleet.

“There’s nothing routine about changing the aircraft we have now to this. It's night and day. It’s state of the art. Not only for the pilots, for the crew members and the fire captains, it's going to take a lot of training,” said Jeff Sanders, Division Chief for Cal Fire - Tuolumne Calaveras Unit who oversees Columbia Air Attack base and who is stationed at Baseline Conservation Camp in Jamestown.

Cal Fire plans to begin the incremental rollout of the $325 million helicopter project in October, though a specific date for its delivery to the Columbia Air Attack Base has not yet been determined, said Scott McLean, deputy chief of communications at Cal Fire.

The new helicopter is a twin-engine craft called the Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk from United Rotorcraft, which are manufactured specifically for Cal Fire and for firefighting purposes.

The Firehawk boasts a 1,000 gallon belly tank for water drops — the models won’t use buckets, Mclean said — updated mechanics and the potential for night flying capability.

Fully loaded, they can travel at speeds up to 150 miles per hour.

Most of the helicopter is constructed in Poland before it is delivered to the United States for components and paint, McLean said.

The incremental rollout is because each of the helicopters will not be arriving all at once.

McLean said the first helicopter will be delivered to the Cal Fire Aviation Management Headquarters at the McClellan Airfield in Sacramento sometime “in the beginning of October.”

Staff will evaluate the equipment to ensure it works before an extensive training procedure begins on the operation of the craft, with the updated hoist system and on water drops from the belly tanks.

“We want to make sure we are very thorough and make changes, if there are any to be made,” McLean said.

Cal Fire plans a one for one replacement as the new Firehawks are delivered. There are 21 units throughout the state, noted Mclean, with 12 air attack bases strategically positioned throughout the state.

There are 10 helitack bases statewide, he added, with many of them fused in some way with the air attack bases.

The two additional helicopters will be considered reserve for maintenance reasons, McLean said.

Each air attack base is designed so that aircraft are able to respond to any location within 20 minutes, he said.

Since the 1980s, the helicopters used by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) have become larger, faster and more equipped to battle wildland blazes in their incipient moments.

Sanders said the helicopter stationed at Columbia Air Attack base, the UH-1H Super Huey, was used since 1994 and military surplused after the Vietnam War.

They were purchased from the United States Forest Service and replaced an earlier, smaller model, the UH-1 F-Series, from the 1980s, according to Cal Fire Firefighting aircraft recognition guide.

Sanders described the Huey models as “awesome” and “well maintained” despite their age.

The “Super Huey” has the maximum capacity to drop a 324 gallon bucket, but due to altitude and speed specifications, it routinely holds 260 gallons per drop, Sanders said.

“We know we can always drop that safely between the performance specifications as we burn off fuel,” he said.

The Firehawks will have a different cockpit, which means different demands for those operating them, Sanders said.

Each pilot assigned to Columbia Air Attack base will go out of the area for training for a minimum of 20 to 30 days, Sanders said.

McLean said as a primary note that the Firehawk was “significantly larger” than the Super Huey, with more inside capacity for equipment, staff or those in need of medical treatment.

Each of them will have a rescue hoist, while Super Hueys had them as an add-on.

The massive belly tanks, mounted on the underside of the craft, will “drastically cut” firefighting time by allowing fewer trips to a water source, McLean said.

Overall, the craft is intended to be “well-rounded” and navigate the uncertain terrain of California, with “gullys canyons and rough ground,” McLean said.

During an aerial fire attack, McLean denoted the various aircraft and their functions to manage resources, beat back flames and stop it from spreading.

“Helicopters are a specific product. They can come in nice and slow,” McLean said.

The water in the drops can be mixed with a special foam which allows it to adhere to vegetation during firefights and more effectively extinguish flames, he said.

Besides just firefighting, the helicopters are used on rescues, prevention surveillance and even on prescribed burns.

McLean said the hope was that helitorches that are attached to the Super Hueys — essentially a large flamethrower which discharges a napalm like substance — can be attached to the Firehawks as well.

A March 2018 budget request from Cal Fire outlines the timeline shaping the rollout. The 2017-18 budget included $24.4 million for one helicopter, $97.6 million in both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 budgets for four helicopters each year and $75.3 million in 2020-21 budget for three helicopters.

The budget also identifying expected $26.5 million in infrastructure costs as capital outlay projects, estimating nine of the 10 helitack bases will need improvements to accommodate the new helicopters. Nine new hangars were estimated at $2.5 million per hanger, or $22.5 million total, and an additional $4 million for five permanent barracks for bases that will support night flight.

Sanders said he did not expect more staff would be assigned to Columbia Air Attack Base following the delivery of the Firehawk.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.

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