Four C-130 transport planes loaded with fire retardant flew from Point Mugu to a Northern California Air Force base on Monday to be within easy striking distance of wildfires in Yosemite National Park and other Northern California hot spots.
Meanwhile, a 38-member ground crew from the California Youth Authority camp in Camarillo joined more than 2,400 firefighters Monday to battle the fires in Yosemite. The Ventura County crew, which included the Youth Authority's first all-woman team of firefighters, was pulled off the Tejon fire in southern Kern County to bolster forces at Yosemite.
The U.S. Forest Service, exhausting its supply of private air tankers, called for the four C-130 planes. The planes work out of the Channel Islands Air National Guard Base, which shares an airstrip with the Naval Air Station at Point Mugu.
The four planes, each equipped to drop 38,000 pounds of red-colored fire retardant on a bombing run, had been helping ground crews fight wildfires in the Sequoia National Forest near Lake Isabella.
"The hottest fires are farther north, and that is where we need air tankers," said Fred Andres, a Forest Service air officer in charge at the Channel Islands base.
The four planes moving from Ventura County to Beale Air Force Base near Marysville will join four other Air National Guard C-130s fighting fires in Northern California. The other planes came in from Charlotte, N.C., and Cheyenne, Wyo.
"By going to Beale, we can make 15- to 20-minute turnaround times," said Senior Master Sgt. Larry C. Mallory, a load master who dumps the chemical mixture of ammonia sulfates, phosphates and water out of the rear of a C-130 based at Channel Islands. On a good day, he said, his plane with two pilots can make as many as 20 runs.
Col. Daniel H. Pemberton, commander of the Channel Islands Air National Guard Base, said he expects that his planes will be gone from three to 10 days. Two of the planes come from his squadron of 16 transport planes. Two others have been on loan to Channel Islands from the Air Force reserves in Riverside.
Pemberton flew one plane to Beale on Monday that helped haul equipment and about 120 military personnel and federal employees to the new air command post for the multi-agency firefighting effort.
On the ground in Yosemite, meanwhile, the 38 inmates from the California Youth Authority camp in Camarillo set to work alongside other firefighters. Most of the young inmates said they had never been to Yosemite before.
"We were looking forward to seeing all the big trees," said Juan Galvan, 19, of Los Angeles.
"It's a privilege to be out here," said Valarie Richardson, 21, of Pittsburg, Calif. "We did crimes, you know what I'm saying? And we get to get out here and work."
Capt. Dale Rodriguez, supervisor of the 14-member all-woman team, said he was proud of their performance at Tejon.
"It was the toughest assignment they've ever had, and they did excellently," he said. "They hiked up a steep hill with loose soil for about 2 1/2 hours and they held together. Pretty impressive."
Teddy Reese, the California Division of Forestry captain who heads the Youth Authority team, said they were equally pleased with the 15 men, who were nearly caught by fire from below as it raced up a steep hill.
"We didn't have help because the radios weren't working," Galvan said.
The Ventura contingent may face even tougher conditions at Yosemite, where they have been assigned to the erratic Arch Rock fire on steep terrain at the western end of the park. Arch Rock was the largest of the three fires at the park on Monday.
The possibility of warm winds, thunderstorms and lightning, which started the two main fires last Tuesday, made fire officials cautious about predicting when the blazes might be extinguished. Firefighters had constructed a fire line around 39% of the Arch Rock fire by Monday.
John Mincks, forester with the U.S. Forest Service and fire information officer at Yosemite, said the Camarillo group is one of several Youth Authority crews at the park. He said they are an important part of the firefighting effort.
"They come in as organized crews, regimented and supervised with their own equipment," Mincks said. "They are effective firefighters, a valuable resource."
Nine supervisors and guards accompanied the Camarillo group. At least one of them supervises crew members at all times, even during their sleep.
Terry Lee, 18, of Santa Ana said he was eager to trade the hard work for the chance to learn a skill and see Yosemite. "I know I would never do something like this if I wasn't on the crew," he said.
Penny Lara, a 22-year-old woman from Baldwin Park, said fighting a fire is hard work, but it provides a tremendous boost in self-esteem, especially for the women.
"You feel good about yourself," she said. "We look little but can really hold our own."
Fires slow their race through Yosemite's woodlands but rangers fear new lightningstorms. A3