New technology and equipment helps, but a three-year drought has created tinderbox conditions in Orange County
Fire Helicopter One skimmed over the roofs of Fullerton, rotors whumping, and banked east, crossing the 91 freeway into a national park which from a distance appeared lush and green.
Scudding between two canyons, however, you could see it was brown scrub – a desolate vista of parched grass and stunted vegetation covering steep slopes.
"In a normal year these hills would be covered with brilliant yellow and purple wildflowers," said David Lopez, pointing out of the cockpit window. "But because of the drought it's completely dry." He shook his head. "It wouldn't take much for this place to go up."
Lopez, a fire captain with more than 20 years' experience combating blazes in southern California, is bracing for a long, hot summer. A three-year drought has created tinderbox conditions across much of the American west.
"I've seen flames move faster than a truck. Embers can fly across a highway and ignite the other side. In one hour a fire can go from one acre to a thousand."
A fire torched thousands of acres in Arizona last week days after about a dozen wildfires fuelled by strong winds and record temperatures flared across southern California.
Cooler temperatures, when they come, may bring limited respite: climate change has altered seasonal rhythms so that wildfires can, and do, erupt in winter.
California's fire season was now two months longer than a decade ago, requiring thousands of additional firefighters and year-round mobilisation, governor Jerry Brown said last week. Humanity was on a collision course with nature and California was in the frontline despite state efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he warned. "In the meantime, all we can do is fight all these damn fires."
Lopez, 51, and his team of pilots at the Orange County fire authority base in Fullerton, like other helicopter units around the country, are often the first to reach blazes in remote, rugged terrain.
On a good day, they extinguish a fire before it spreads. On a bad day all they can do is try to steer it.
"We want to get out there real quickly and keep it small by attacking it with overwhelming force," he said. "If it's too late for that we try to drive it in the direction we want it to go. It's kind of like herding cattle."
Being buffeted by heat, smoke and wind as you hover 50ft over a conflagration, waiting for just the right moment and angle to unleash 360 gallons of water, and then returning to do it again and again, affords a unique perspective on wildfires. "It's a lot like war. The theories come from war fighting: massing of forces, anchoring and flanking, attacking when the enemy is weak," said Lopez, as the helicopter overflew ridges ravaged by fire last December, in the depth of supposed winter.
Jim Davidson, 67, seated at the controls of the Bell 412 twin-engine, nodded. He flew Hueys for the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam. "Same principle. You're moving people, assets. The conditions are extreme. You're trying to defeat the enemy."
Twice Davidson has helped save imperilled ground crews. "They were going to be hot dogs in a bun," he said, recalling a crew surrounded by the 2007 Santiago fire. The flames had cut their hose, leaving them without water and means of escape.
A 19-strong elite "Hotshot" crew battling the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona last June was not so lucky. All died, making it the deadliest day for any US fire department since 9/11.
The federal forest service and the state service, Cal Fire, have fleets of planes and helicopters, but counties such as Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura and Kern keep their own fleets. Often they are called out to rescue hikers or mountain bikers – or horses, in a recent rescue conducted by Lopez's team – but their main task is quenching fires.
Two of Orange County's four helicopters are souped-up ex-army Hueys from Vietnam; the others are more modern Bells. Each has a 360-gallon water tank. A hose known as a snorkel enables them to refill in just 40 seconds – often from reservoirs or golf course lakes.
Night vision goggles let the Orange County pilots operate at night, a novelty, and iPads with mapping software let them send photographs and coordinates from the air to ground colleagues.
Power lines pose a grave danger, especially when obscured by smoke. "I hate them. They're my worst enemy," said Davidson. Another risk is collision from other aircraft clustered around a fire zone, requiring what commanders call "ballet in the air".
A long-term hazard, in addition to a heating planet, is economic development. Criss-cross the county at 1,000ft and it is striking how many bulldozers are carving out foundations for roads and houses in previously uninhabited wilderness areas – multiplying the lives and property to be defended.
Lopez pointed out homes in remote beauty spots – many of them mansions with swimming pools – beside trees. Lovely for shade and a leafy view but a disaster waiting to happen, said the fire captain. "We just look at that as fuel."
Laguna Beach, a wealthy area which lost 400 homes in a 1993 fire, has adapted: few of the rebuilt homes abut trees, and herds of goats curb hillside vegetation. "Some people have learned the lesson," said Davidson, looking down. "Some have not."
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