Use of three large helicopters dropping retardant at night may have limited size of Route Fire

In September it burned 5,280 acres north of Los Angeles between Interstate 5 and Castaic Lake

Route Fire map, Sept. 3, 2022
Route Fire map, Sept. 3, 2022.

This article was first published at Fire Aviation.

A report produced by the managers of Southern California’s Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of four helicopters concludes that the aggressive aerial attack working with the units on the ground likely limited the final size and cost of the Route Fire. The fire started at about noon on August 31, 2022 and ultimately burned 5,280 acres north of Los Angeles between Interstate 5 and Castaic Lake. (Download the 3.2 Mb report)

This is a different incident from the Route Fire that burned 454 acres a few miles away along Interstate 5 September 11, 2021. You may remember that fire as the one where 13 firefighters who were becoming rapidly entrapped were crammed into two US Forest Service engines and rescued with only moments to spare. There were 23 bodies in the two engines, with seating designed for five each. Another 11 firefighters not quite as close to the flames were rescued by Los Angeles County engines.

The four QRF helicopters are all staffed for 24-hour coverage and equipped for night flying. With most of their base funding supplied by Southern California Edison they are located in Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura Counties. Two of the helicopters are CH-47 Chinooks, one is an S-61, and the fourth is an S-76 used for aerial supervision. The helicopters are dispatched as a unit along with a mobile fire retardant base and can drop water until the base is established. The fact that they can drop retardant 24 hours a day, when fixed wing aircraft can’t work the fire at night, can be a game changer. During the Route Fire the mobile retardant base did not have to travel, it was set up at its base about 10 miles from the fire.

Quick Reaction Force helicopters
Quick Reaction Force helicopters. From the QRF report.

The assignment given to the QRF by Los Angeles County Fire Department on the Route fire was for it to stop the spread to the north. The S-61 was tasked to hold a particular location on the fire, using water from the adjacent Castaic Lake. It averaged of 696 gallons per drop.

The two Chinooks dropped averages of 2,434 gallons of water per drop and 1,896 gallons of retardant per drop. The three suppression helicopters flew an average of 9 hours each that afternoon and into the night, dropping 223,000 gallons of water and 55,000 gallons of retardant. The S-76 was used for 17 hours. The total cost of the retardant and flight time for the four ships was $403,950.

Map of 2022 Route and 1996 Marple Fires
Map of 2022 Route and 1996 Marple Fires. From the QRF report.

The report compares the Route Fire to the 1996 Marple Fire which started in about the same location at the same time of the day and time of year in similar weather conditions. By midnight the Marple Fire had exceeded 10,000 acres and continued spreading for two or three days until it was stopped at 19,860 acres.

Retardant line on north side of Route Fire, Sept. 1, 2022
Retardant line on north side of Route Fire, Sept. 1, 2022. From the QRF report.

In contrast, the spread of the Route Fire was stopped at 8 a.m. on Day 2. The three helicopters dropped water and retardant much of the night to hold it at a ridge on the north side, allowing hand crews and dozers to complete fire line.

It is very difficult to compare the suppression costs of two fires that occurred 26 years apart, but the authors of the QRF report estimated that the cost of the Marple Fire in today’s dollars would be somewhere between $70 million and $140 million. The cost of the Route Fire was $7 million to $8 million.

QRF delivery statistics, Route Fire

Dozens of firefighters were nearly entrapped on the Route Fire in Southern California

In a very close call, they all escaped, but two were treated in a hospital burn unit

Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021
Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021

On September 11, 2021 dozens of firefighters working on the Route Fire north of Los Angeles suddenly found themselves with fire on all sides of them. Even though it occurred three months ago the story has not been publicly told, until today.

Wildfire Today covered the fire at the time.

Helicopter-based flight crews, hand crews, and several Los Angeles County and US Forest Service engine crews were working on the fire seven miles north of Castaic between Interstate 5 and old highway 99, also known as Golden State Highway. The crews and engines positioned ahead of the fire had been on scene for about 30 minutes looking for the right time and place to engage the fire, which had previously moved west across the 99. Eventually it turned hard north, then east back to the highway behind the crews, with spot fires occurring out ahead. As it neared the highway, flames seen in the videos appeared to be 20 to 40 feet high when they bent over the road as the heavy brush was rapidly consumed.

Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021
Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021. Looking south.

The fire spread north was undetected by the firefighters on the highway due to topography, and the lookouts became inadequate as the fire grew. Air resources observed the pinching action of the fire, along with fire crews on Interstate 5. As they tried to communicate it was time to leave, a bottleneck occurred. South and north of the crews the highway was four lanes wide, but at that point it was only two lanes wide.

Route Fire map
Route Fire map. USFS.

The two flight crews of approximately 11 persons each had been transported by helicopters, but were obviously on foot after being dropped off. The crew that was the furthest out from the worst of the entrapment was able to load their personnel into LA County engines and escape.

Closer to the roaring flames the other flight crew, on foot, was in imminent danger. Two US Forest Service engines, each staffed with five firefighters, were able to find a way to cram the 11-person flight crew plus two others into the two FS engines, coordinated by Engine Boss Tom Guzman. Seven members of the flight crew climbed into one engine, and the other took four plus an additional two firefighters who were on foot nearby. They had trouble getting the doors to close. There were 23 bodies in the two engines, with seating designed for five each. The last person in one of the engines came in through the driver’s door and was lying across several people on the front seat as the driver found a way to still operate the truck as he navigated through the smoke, avoiding parked or slow-moving fire apparatus on the two-lane highway as his air horn blasted.

Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021
Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021

Many of the flight crewmembers were rookies and kept their tools as they climbed over bodies into the suddenly very cramped cabs. One of them was on his first fire.

A firefighter from the US Forest Service suffered second degree burns to his ears, neck, nose, cheeks, and arm. Another from LA County received a second degree burn to his neck. They were both treated by paramedics on scene, transported to a hospital emergency room, and later to a burn unit, and then released.

Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021
Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021

“The more experienced firefighters were more shaken up than the new guys,” one firefighter told Wildfire Today. “Firefighters on the outside looking in were pretty shaken up, but as best as I can tell I think we are all doing good. I’ve learned that things like this are more common than people realize, but until recent times they haven’t been captured on video, so they were never made known.”

Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021
Route Fire, Sept. 11, 2021

Multiple firefighters captured it on videos. Wildfire Today obtained a three-minute version that the US Forest Service distributed internally, below, which tells part of the story of the near miss.

By the next morning the spread of the Route Fire had been stopped at 454 acres thanks to the work of firefighters on the ground and numerous aircraft.

For his actions on the Route Fire, Tom Guzman, who was serving as an Engine Boss, received a “USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region Emergency Response Award”. More details about the award are at the end of the video.

After the interviews that were conducted shortly after the incident the firefighters were told that a “Rapid Lesson Sharing” document would be produced. As of December 11, 2021 it has not appeared.

The still images seen here are from the videos shot by the firefighters.

More information about this incident:  Processing the trauma of a near miss.

Route Fire burns on both sides of Interstate 5 north of Castaic, California

Mapped Sunday morning at 454 acres

12:17 p.m. PDT Sept. 12, 2021

Firefighters on the Route Fire northwest of Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County were busy overnight and as of Sunday morning have made very good progress on the fire. It burned on both sides of Interstate 5, completely closing it for a while Saturday afternoon.

Hand crews and engines working through the night were assisted by night-flying water-dropping helicopters, two from Los Angeles County and one from the Angeles National Forest.

Sunday morning firefighters reported it has burned 454 acres.

Below is an excellent Monday morning update on the fire, with video narrated by the Operations Section Chief. It was filmed on the west side of the fire, west of Interstate 5, and starts by looking north or northwest, then pans to the east and south. You can see that traffic has apparently resumed on I-5. Very good description of the fire status, and excellent videography. Someone give this Ops Chief a bonus!

7:18 p.m. PDT Sept. 11, 2021

Route Fire map
Map showing the location of the Route Fire north of Los Angeles.

The Route Fire that started north of Los Angeles Saturday afternoon on the west side of Interstate 5 about seven miles north of Castaic jumped across the freeway and by 6:30 p.m. had burned approximately 400 acres as it spread to the northeast.

Route Fire CL-415 SuperScooper
CL-415 SuperScocoper drops on the Route Fire at 5:09 p.m. PDT Sept. 11, 2021. Image from FOX11.

Aircraft working on the fire included a DC-10, BAe-146, S-2T, at least one SuperScooper CL-415, and multiple helicopters including two 3,000-gallon Chinooks and a Sky-Crane.

A US Forest Service spokesperson said at 6:50 p.m. that there are few structures in the area that would be threatened by the blaze. He also said two firefighters had received minor burns.

Route Fire
Route Fire at 5:23 p.m. PDT Sept. 11, 2021; looking south. Image from FOX11.

Interstate 5 had to be closed in both directions.

Route Fire DC-10 air tanker
DC-10 air tanker drops on the Route Fire at 5:04 p.m. PDT Sept. 11, 2021. Image from FOX11.
Route Fire
Route Fire, looking northwest from Magic Mountain at 7:20 p.m. PDT Sept 11, 2021. AlertWildfire.

We will update this article as more information becomes available.