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Cal Fire director promotes new weapons to fight wildfires

New Cal Fire leader looks to new tech as fire season begins
New Cal Fire leader looks to new tech as fire season begins 03:08

SACRAMENTO (KPIX) -- Some of the most effective weapons to fight wildfires in California are aerial fire retardant and water drops.

The new director of Cal Fire, chief Joe Tyler, proudly showed KPIX the largest civil aerial firefighting fleet in the world, featuring more than 60 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft which now include seven new tankers, and 12 helicopters.

"When the aircraft go into service, they too will be a game changer," Tyler said.

It is a game-changer for a state that has seen catastrophic and record fire seasons year after year. The biggest came two years ago when the August Complex Fire burned 1,032,548 acres. The deadliest was 2018 when the Camp Fire burned through the town of Paradise, destroying 18,804 buildings and taking 85 lives.

"The magnitude of the fire environment and the damage that has been in the last few years is earth-shattering and it really deals a blow on your psyche," Tyler said.

Joe Tyler joined Cal Fire 31-years ago as a seasonal fire fighter in the Shasta-Trinity area. After working his way up the ranks, he was appointed  the department's 22nd director in its 137-year history.

He is largely credited with updating an aging fleet of helicopters from Vietnam-era Hueys to 12 Blackhawk Sikorsky S70is. He has dubbed these choppers Fire Hawks -- they're faster and carry 1,000 gallons of water compared to 324 gallons. Perhaps more importantly, they will eventually fly missions at night.

"I look forward to be able to fly 24 hours a day and 7 days a week to be able to potentially suppress small initial attack fires at night in an environment when temps are cooler," Tyler said. 

The new pride of Cal Fire: seven C-130H Airtankers. The planes will soon travel to Georgia where crews will install 4,000-gallon retardant tanks. Currently they are not scheduled to fly until 2024 but Chief Tyler hopes a few will go online next year.

"I certainly hope we can speed the time and get one or two these aircraft sooner than 2024," Tyler said.

In the past four out of five years, more than a million acres have burned in the Golden State. In 2020, 4,304,379 acres burned and 2,568,948 acres were consumed last year.

Even so, the new director remains optimistic.

"Are we ever going to change wildfires in California, no,"  Tyler admitted. "But how we prevent them and how we mitigate is a tide we can turn."

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