By Karen Brainard
Between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. the Ramona Air Attack Base at Ramona Airport has been a hub of activity for aircraft, helicopters, pilots and crew members fighting the Eagle fire near Warner Springs.
Chief Debra Lutz with the U.S. Forest Service, who coordinates the aircraft at the base, said of the operations: “Everybody’s doing a fantastic job. Everything’s going smoothly.”
The latest report from CalFire is that the fire has burned 14,100 acres and is 55 percent contained. The cost to fight the brush fire to-date is $9.6 million.
CalFire reports that the fire is burning in a mix of grass, brush, oak and pine trees in steep, rugged terrain on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation and the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. The northern portion is burning through heavy vegetation in an area with no known fire history, states CalFire
Mike Surber, a CalFire firefighter from Fresno, flew in with his pilot, Bob Justo Coward from Redding, on
an OV-10 Bronco Tuesday evening after spending the day coordinating tanker drops with the ground crews.
He said they were struggling with the northern and eastern parts of the fire because of the inaccessibility of the area, which he described as “real rocky and real steep.”
Because of the inaccessibility, Surber said ground crews were being airlifted in and out, with crews working 24 to 30 hours at a time.
By CalFire standards, pilots are held to seven hours of flight time, he said.
According to CalFire, there are seven airtankers and 20 helicopters being used to fight the blaze.
Fire personnel at the base pointed out that CalFire’s aircraft are former military planes. Surber said the OV-10 is from the Vietnam era.
He also said many of the helicopters are privately-owned.
Lutz said the effort is multi-agency, involving federal, state and local governments and private contractors.
“We all work together as one unit,” Lutz said, adding that they do have different policies.
A P-3 air tanker from Aero Union Corporation that can drop about 2,550 gallons of fire retardant, about twice that of the CalFire S-2 air tankers, arrived on Tuesday. The pilot and crew had come from Battle Mountain, Nev.
The fire retardant powder is mixed with water at the air base and is loaded into the aircraft, with each tanker making several rotations a day between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Chuck Duncan, an area manager at the base, estimated about 200,000 gallons of fire retardant had been used as of Tuesay evening. The fire started last Thursday night.
According to CalFire, about 2,138 fire personnel are working on the Eagle Fire. Agencies involved include CalFire, San Diego County Fire Authority, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, California Department of Parks & Recreation, California Emergency Management Association, San Diego Gas & Electric, California Conservation Corps, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the California Air National Guard.
Six minor injuries have been reported and one outbuilding was destroyed. Two cabins near the fire area were evacuated, CalFire said.