Picture this: A wildfire breaks out in mountains near Napa Valley. Soon after, two Napa County-based planes are pouring water on the flames in an attempt to prevent the next Glass Fire.
Vintner and Howell Mountain resident Randy Dunn wants this to be more than a dream. He said the local environmental coalition Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture seeks to have two rapid response planes on standby in the county by fire season.
These wouldn’t be massive air tankers. Rather, they would be smaller, single-engine Fire Boss planes, ready to drop up to 800 gallons of water on a fire and then scoop more out from a Lake Berryessa or Lake Hennessey.
The cost to rent the service from a private company for six months is $1.5 million. Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture is offering to pay and would fundraise if and when some issues are worked out with Cal Fire.
“I feel quite confident I can raise that. If you look at $1.5 million in the wine industry, it’s like nothing compared to the losses we incurred,” Dunn said.
If the idea comes to fruition, Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture would bring the two planes here as an experiment. The planes during fire season would sit at a local airport fueled and loaded with water, with pilots ready to fly.
The question is how this privately funded venture might fit in with Cal Fire’s firefighting efforts. The answer could determine if the Fire Boss idea gets off the ground.
Dunn has talked with Cal Fire officials. He has also brought the idea to county supervisors, state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St Helena.
As a result, Dunn wants the Napa County Board of Supervisors to ask Cal Fire to incorporate the aircraft into the agency’s local firefighting program. He sent an email to county supervisors asking the county to make the request.
Napa County Board of Supervisors Chairperson Alfredo Pedroza expressed interest in considering the Fire Boss idea. He said firefighting resources are scarce when California has multiple wildfires.
“We have to consider becoming a county that has resources in our county to fight our fires,” Pedroza said.
Supervisor Diane Dillon is also interested, though she noted the county has a contract with Cal Fire for rural firefighting and she’s heard Cal Fire prefers helicopters as the quick-response aircraft. The idea has to be coordinated with Cal Fire, she said.
“I know staff is taking a fact-based look at this,” Dillon said. “We’re not rejecting any ideas as out-of-hand.”
Shana Jones, chief of the Cal Fire Sonoma Lake Napa Unit, said the agency has received the proposal and is evaluating it.
To Cal Fire’s knowledge, only one local government agency contracts in the fall months of each year for firefighting planes, she said in an email. Los Angeles County contracts with Canada to provide two CL-415 “Super Scooper” air tankers.
“Additionally, to our knowledge, there is no non-governmental organization in California that contracts for air tankers of any type,” she said.
Cal Fire or the U.S. Forest Service should be aware of any, given the agencies’ aviation programs are responsible for carding and qualifying pilots and aircraft in California for wildland firefighting missions, she said.
Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture is looking at using two single-engine planes that are 36 feet long with 60-foot wingspans and equipped with the Fire Boss water system. They are used by such organizations as the U.S. Forest Service.
Dunn lives on Howell Mountain on property that escaped the devastation of the Tubbs, Atlas, Nuns, Glass and Hennessey fires of recent years. Combined, the fires burned about half the county and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings.
The changing climate and dry winds have altered wildfire dynamics, Dunn said.
“Those dynamics need to be met with other resources, other techniques if you will,” he said.
The idea for the Fire Boss planes had its beginning shortly after the Glass Fire broke out at 3:45 a.m. on Sept. 27. Dunn watched the skies from his home, waiting for the aerial firefighting response. He didn’t see Cal Fire planes arrive until 9:30 a.m.
“That whole issue kind of got me enraged,” Dunn said.
Napa County-based Fire Boss planes could have started dropping water on the fire hours earlier, Dunn said. “This is something that would get out at daybreak, as soon as it’s legal to fly,” he said.
Mike Hackett, who is active with Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture, also lives on Howell Mountain. The Glass Fire burned to an adjacent property.
“I will personally be so relieved to know that quick response aircrafts are available at the first light of day, ready to control wildland fires,” he said. “We need to keep 5-acre fires at 5 acres, not let them explode into conflagrations.”
The planes would keep every citizen in Napa County safer, he said.
Napa County-based Fire Boss planes could also respond to fires in Lake, Solano, and Sonoma counties and maybe Marin County, Dunn said. That could help minimize smoke damage to Napa County grapes from large, out-of-control wildfires.
Dunn isn’t counting on the Fire Boss idea alone to help protect his Howell Mountain property from wildfires. He is taking other steps to avoid becoming a wildfire victim, such as removing underbrush.
“I’ve spent a lot of money the last few months on vegetation management,” Dunn said. “You should see the back of the hills above my house and winery. It looks a lot different now than it did in November.”
The Fire Boss idea isn’t the only private initiative that’s emerged in the wake of recent wildfires. Vintner Dario Sattui’s Castello di Amorosa winery has created its own fire brigade for additional protection during red flag warnings.
This fireteam will be equipped with fire protective gear and thousands of feet of fire hose to attach to three fire hydrants on the property. The Glass Fire gutted the winery’s Farmhouse building, though the main castle was untouched.
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