The Thomas Fire is poised to become the 3rd largest wildfire in the history of California. It has burned 253,000 acres, including nearly 1,000 structures, and has claimed 2 lives.
153 fire crews with over 8,300 fire personnel manning over 1,000 fire engines are fighting the active fire lines. The problem is that the mountain range that surrounds Santa Barbara is very steep and very dangerous. There are few access roads to many of the more remote peaks. And many land owners have built sizeable homes in the most precarious locations along the mountainside.
This means that the only effective way to fight the fire and prevent further structure damage is from the air.
Currently there are 32 helicopter crews assigned to the Thomas Fire and 6 fixed wing aircraft crews.
The majority of these crews can only fly during daylight. And they are limited to 7 hours of flight time per day. None of the fixed wing aircraft are flown at night. currently only 2 helicopter crews are rated for night flight.
This means that both fixed and rotor (helicopter) flight operations must be conducted concurrently; greatly increasing the risk of a mid-air collision.
Luckily these flight crews are manned and supervised by some of the best aviators in the world and their coordinated attack on the fire appears more like dance than a battle.
In the rotor (helicopter) division you have two types of craft - those which carry large buckets (filled with water or fire retardant) and those which have internal or mounted tanks (filled with water or fire retardant). The helicopters that deliver buckets to the fire line come in all shapes and sizes. From military craft (Hueys and Blackhawks), to large commercial and smaller commercial craft.
Above - a Blackhawk carrying a bucket "paints" the fire line with bright colored fire retardant.
Above - The Twin Non-Coaxial rotor Kaman K-Max helicopter works the fire.
Above: A Siller Helicopters CH-54A (H-781); a Type 1 (tanker) helicopter.
A spotter helicopter (command) circles the area of attack and gives dropping directions to the rotor crews as they arrive. They leave the fire line after dropping their payloads and return to pick up more (water or retardant).
This back and forth attack continues for hours.
Above - A Coulson C-130 Air Tanker flies into the fire zone for a drop.
Fixed wing aircraft work with a spotter that paints the target drop area (they drop an aerosol dye that stays airborn and highly visable to the pilot of the larger craft.
The advantage of larger aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules and the Brittish Aerospace 146 is that they can carry thousands of gallons of water or retardant instead of hundreds.
These planes have the ability to greatly assist ground based teams in stopping the progression of a fire.
Even modified commercial jetliners can be effective in delivering massive amounts of retardant to the fire line such as the Erickson MD-87 (Above).
Above - a BAe 146 drops its payload - protecting a cluster of homes in the Thomas Fire's path.
At the end of the day hundreds of flight hours have been logged and countless acres of land have been saved.
The photos above were shot with a Nikon D4s and Nikkor 500mm f/4 AF-S lens.
I was behind the fire lines (in the manditory evacuation zone) - around 1 mile from the action in the sky above.