A fiery eye in the sky
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has an asset in the air. His name is Ira Townsend, battalion chief for the Grass Valley air attack.
“The only way to get experience is to make mistakes and learn from them,” Townsend said, and it is this California native’s 45 years of experience with CDF that has made him important to the area’s fire attack plan.
“We don’t have time to think in the air,” he said with a determined look. “We usually have our strategy planned within a minute of reaching the scene of a fire. That type of confident decision making only comes with experience.”
With Townsend only 15 minutes from Truckee by air, his quick response and decision making can be the difference between partial and catastrophic loss, especially on a windy day in the Sierra.
Townsend is dispatched from Grass Valley for an initial response to wildland fires in the smaller Cessna “spotter” planes. The Cessna’s are light and agile and able to circle for hours over a fire situation. When the air attack planes arrive on scene, the pilots assess the situation and determine the proper plan to follow. He said the air attack’s first priority is to direct air traffic.
“It gets pretty crazy during a large fire situation,” he said. “I need to know where everyone is at all times to help maintain some sense of safety.”
At times, Townsend has to direct tankers, helicopters, medical personnel and ground crews simultaneously. It is a matter of complete trust and cooperation between everyone involved in fighting a fire, he said.
“From the air, we can see large openings among trees and larger expanses of land,” he said. “The ground crews have the advantage of seeing large trees, which is impossible from the air.”
Spotters help ground crews
CDF Capt. Dean Levonian said knowing more about what the air attack pilots are seeing can help ground crews to fight fires.
“Air and ground crews see fires from different perspectives and understanding these perspectives helps the effort,” Levonian said.
“The days of doing things by yourself are over,” said Townsend. “Cooperation with government agencies, fire districts and the U.S. Forest Service is important. Our area is too big to work fires alone.”
Understanding the cooperation needed between CDF ground and air crews brought Townsend and pilot Karl “Casey” Cox to Truckee last week for an exchange of ideas with Truckee’s CDF ground crews.
CDF personnel took to the skies in an attempt to better understand the area from the air.
Levonian said that the area is so large and there are so many Forest Service roads, that additional knowledge of the road systems and overall area topography is helpful.
“It is so difficult to describe what we see (from the air) during a fire situation,” Townsend said. “This is one way to familiarize the ground crews with their area.”
Townsend said local governments and fire departments need to understand what CDF can do to help them. He said there are shortfalls with not working with the air program on a regular basis.
“They really need to know more about us instead of shying away,” he said.
One benefit to Sierra residents and fire departments is CDF’s contracted air services daylong reconnaissance flights in areas that have been hard hit by lightning storms. If fires are found, air attack planes are sent in to evaluate the situation.
“We fly over the entire Truckee and northern Sierra region to make sure that if a fire is started by lightning, we can stop it before it gets out of control,” he said.
Cooperation has also been sought with the Sacramento news and radio stations to prevent tie-ups in the air. Station helicopters trying to get fire coverage were intruding in the air attack efforts. Townsend said this needed to stop and it did with a specially designed media day cooperative.
“Every year we offer the media rides in the planes and give them a briefing on fire attack strategies,” he said. “We even give them a brown bag lunch, similar to the lunches supplied to the fire crews in the field. They love it.”
By working with the media, Townsend said the media is much more cooperative in emergency situations.
“We don’t get a lot of interference from station helicopters anymore,” he said. “Every once in a while we have a run-in with a pilot and it usually turns out that they didn’t participate in the media day.”
Townsend said in an emergency situation, all that matters is safety. That is why, he said, CDF pilots have extensive training.
“There is such a huge learning curve during the first year of flying for CDF,” he said. “And it takes the right person with the right personality to get the job done.”
CDF requires air personnel to have certain traits, such as the ability to persuade and to think quickly and make decisions.
“We would rather have someone make a quick decision and it be incorrect than have a person not make a decision at all,” he said. “We tell our trainees that all a bad decision means is that the black spot gets bigger. They only way they will learn is by seeing the same situation over and over again.”
Townsend has seen just about every situation possible throughout his years with CDF.
He began working with CDF when he was 15 years old. For the first 15 years he worked with the Sonora district, as a seasonal firefighter, an engineer and finally a captain.
He became a fire prevention ranger with the state’s arson investigation team and then became the Tehema County battalion chief, overseeing 300 personnel and 40 pieces of machinery. From there he worked as the Emergency Command Center Chief in Grass Valley.
He had flown in his father’s J3 Cub airplane since he was a child, so he decided to join the air program as a relief pilot in the Sonora district. It was this opportunity that brought him back to Grass Valley “to fly and fight fire” for the past 15 years.
“These are my two favorite things to do and I’m doing them now,” he said.
“We are the only firefighters in the air,” he added. “Everyone else is a pilot. A damn good pilot.”
In an attempt to save millions of dollars, CDF owns its own airplanes and leases the rest, said Townsend. The department owns 16 S2 tankers within 13 bases and contracts for two additional heavy tankers, which include C130s or C3s. The airplane Townsend flew to Truckee was one of two in-line twin O2 Cessna planes slated for retirement out of the 13 active air attack planes.
“These planes will be replaced (by next fire season) with Bronco OV10s, which are developed for forward observation,” he said. “Unfortunately the opportunities to take ground crews and other civilians will come to an end because the new planes do not allow for passengers.”
Although Townsend is stationed in Grass Valley, his territory for fire response reaches as far as Redding, Jackson, Tahoe and the Feather River.
“It is not uncommon to be dispatched to southern California for additional help with wildland fires,” he said.
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