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After the catastrophic Old Topanga Fire in 1993, former Los Angeles County fire chief P. Michael Freeman journeyed to Quebec to meet with officials from the province’s aerial firefighting service.
The meeting resulted in an agreement to lease two Bombardier (now Viking) CL-415 waterbombers, known as “Quebec I” and “Quebec II.”
The aircraft have faithfully served L.A. County for 25 years, arriving each year to battle blazes in southern California.
This year, the air tankers were scheduled to arrive at the L.A. County tanker base at Van Nuys Airport on Sept. 1.
In November 1993, the alarm sounded at Topanga’s Fire Station 69. A plume of smoke billowed into the sky, in the direction of an elementary school that my son attended.
Without waiting, I drove to the school office, where parents waited in line to take their children home. I picked up my son and I rushed to our house on Fernwood Pacific Drive.
I surfed the Los Angeles news channels to watch reporters cover the massive wildfire, as they flew in helicopters to witness the blaze.
For several days the wildfire burned down Saddle Peak, a mountain behind our house, and wind drove smoke and flames toward our neighbourhood.
Firefighters advised us they would remove one section of our wooden fence, which was close to a large propane tank.
The fire’s embers fell onto our roof and there was no time to extinguish them. An L.A. County Sheriff’s Department deputy ordered us to evacuate. We drove two miles north to spend the night at a neighbour’s house.
The next morning a volunteer from Arson Watch, a group that patrols the Santa Monica Mountains during extreme weather-related fire conditions, drove me to our house to see if it had been damaged.
Luckily, it was intact.
The Old Topanga fire was catastrophic, laying waste to 18,000 acres in total, leaving three people dead and 359 homes destroyed.
It led Freeman to Quebec in search of tools that would help fight similar events in the future.
In Quebec, purpose-built CL-415 air tankers flown by veteran pilots were already a powerful addition to the aerial firefighting toolbox.
Bombardier sold the CL-415 program to Viking Air Limited of Victoria, B.C., in 2016, and the aircraft continue to leave an impressive legacy.
The CL-415 is the only Western aircraft purpose-built for firefighting, and it has been deployed around the world.
L.A. County Fire Department leases Quebec I and II during parts of the year that have the highest risk of wildfire.
Quebec’s seasoned CL-415 pilots fight fires together with Bell 412 helicopters from the L.A. County Fire Department’s Air Operations section.
Should the need arise, LA. County can lease an additional two CL-415s.
LEASING VERSUS PURCHASE
In 2001, I wrote an op-ed urging L.A. County to purchase two Bombardier CL-415s, but officials decided to lease them instead.
Annual lease costs can vary, depending upon the length of the lease contract.
Quebec’s air service normally notifies L.A. County when Quebec’s wildfire season has diminished, so that Quebec I and II are able to fly to the tanker base at Van Nuys Airport.
This year, due to significant fire danger in Quebec, the aircraft will arrive Sept. 1.
RAPID INITIAL ATTACK
Quebec’s CL-415s provide a rapid initial attack response to a wildfire, which can mean the difference between a small fire and an out-of-control disaster.
L.A. County firefighters and Quebec’s CL-415 pilots work together!
As a founder, in 2004, of the non-profit Wildfire Research Network, I have testified in Sacramento, Calif., and Washington, D.C., urging legislators to consider the purchase and deployment of CL-415 aircraft in California
Aero-Flite Inc., in Spokane, Wash., operates four CL-415s under contract to the U.S. Forest Service. Two aircraft are based at Elko, Nev., and two at Lake Tahoe.
With the sale of Bombardier’s amphibious aircraft division to Viking Air, a new era for water-scooping aircraft has arrived. The company has announced the CL-415EAF, or Enhanced Aerial Firefighter, which includes specific improvements.
But designing and manufacturing a new aircraft takes time. Viking and its partners will lead the way in the future of water-scooping air tankers.
Meanwhile, Quebec’s pilots are steadfast partners with the L.A. County Fire Department, and have been for 25 years.
There’s no question Quebec I and Quebec II have made a strong impression on the people of southern California.
As the aircraft fly down Topanga Canyon on their way to practice scooping out of the Pacific near Malibu, many Topangans come out to wave.