Good to the last drop
Ared flag alert was on, making it a perfect time for one final water drop for the Super Scooper pilot who for 13 years has led Canadian firefighters’ assault on Los Angeles-area brush fires.
Chief water bomber pilot Jean-Pierre Guay is retiring from a 32-year career flying the unique plane that skims over lakes and the ocean to load water and then sprays it over flaming hillsides.
He returns to snowy Quebec on Wednesday after a ceremony at which county supervisors will thank him for his service.
Guay, 62, said he will miss L.A.'s sunny and warm autumns. But he won’t miss darting in and out of narrow, heavily populated canyons as Santa Ana winds shake and rattle the sturdily built Canadair Bombardier CL-415.
Los Angeles County leases two $35-million Super Scoopers from the province of Quebec during each fall’s windy fire season. The $3-million lease can be extended if the fire danger lingers beyond Christmas.
Eight pilots and three mechanics come with the planes. They stay in a Burbank Holiday Inn.
The sight of the two tankers, which are painted a bright yellow and red and feature distinctive pontoons on their wings, invariably draw cheers from those whose homes are in the path of brush fires.
But the erratic winds that make L.A. fires so dangerous make flying a heavily loaded, fixed-wing plane difficult.
“Sometimes the aircraft is going like this,” Guay said, moving the palms of his hands up and down.
“The controls are pretty stiff -- they don’t want us to make any abrupt maneuvers. In the wind, the pilots are going like this,” he said, moving his fists up and down. “You have to be pretty strong to control it.”
Super Scooper pilots scope out the terrain before lining up in tandem to make their water drops. High-tension power lines and ridge-top trees have to be avoided. So do direct water hits on structures or people.
“Southern California is very different from Quebec,” Guay said. “Up there, we fight fires in forests a long way away from homes. Here, we’re dropping water in urban areas -- sometimes in the courtyards of houses.”
“In a Laurel Canyon fire, we were flying below some houses. We looked up on the hill and people were waving to us. They were happy to see us. We were close enough we could tell whether they were men or women.”
Some of the 12 approved pickup points that the planes scoop water from are also a challenge.
“Lake Sherwood is surrounded by houses,” he said of the small Santa Monica Mountains lake near Thousand Oaks. “Some reservoirs, like the Santa Fe Reservoir, aren’t very long and there’s not much room to come in. We have to be careful. We have to use all the performance of the aircraft.”
Ocean scoops are handy for Malibu fires. But Guay debunked one often-told tale: the Super Scooper that accidentally swept up a shark and deposited it on a hillside.
“Look, the scoops are only about four inches by six inches wide. It’s impossible to pick up a shark,” he said, pulling open one of the intake ports that fill the plane’s 1,620-gallon tank in about 12 seconds.
Flying at about 200 mph, the planes sometimes reach brush fires nearly as quickly as the first firetruck. They are automatically dispatched to every wildfire that the Los Angeles County Fire Department responds to. They are used only during daylight hours, however.
Last year, the two Van Nuys-based planes responded to 74 calls and made 525 drops, using 807,750 gallons of water, said Fire Capt. Scott Graham, a commander of the county’s airport tanker base.
Anthony Marrone, chief of air operations for the county Fire Department, acknowledged that some veteran firefighters had to be won over to the idea of using fixed-wing tankers -- piloted by foreigners.
“In the beginning, it wasn’t a Cinderella story,” Marrone said. “These were guys from Canada who didn’t know our airspace,” not county-trained careerists steeped in local tradition and flying the county’s nine helicopters.
But the fliers from Quebec’s Service Aerien Gouvernmental spoke fluent English and were comfortable working the three rapid-fire radio frequencies used in aerial firefighting. They were quick to pick up on local firefighting procedures and flying protocols.
“These are great guys and their planes are incredible,” Marrone said. “They came to protect the people of our county and they ended up protecting us on the fire line too.
“Jean-Pierre has been the hood ornament. He’s always gone out of his way to make sure they’re doing what we need them to do. They’ve been here for us every year. I don’t know if I could go to Quebec every year and miss Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s.”
As the two Super Scoopers sat parked next to the Van Nuys runway, connected by hose to a fire hydrant and ready for a three-minute water fill, Guay’s last water drop came from a bucket splash by crew mate Rene Lemay, not from the belly of a CL-415.
Before he leaves for the last time, Guay plans to stock up on local souvenirs.
“I’m taking back a lot of L.A. County Fire Department T-shirts to give to my friends,” he said.