On Thursday morning, Brian Renner and Jim Merryfield took off from the Rohnerville Air Attack Base (RAAB) and flew south to a small fire in the Alderpoint area. They were in an OV-10 Bronco, a Vietnam-era spotter plane that was retrofitted in 1999 to be used by CalFire. It was a small fire that morning, only about a quarter acre, and they were waved off by firefighters on the ground pretty quickly. On bigger fires the OV-10 is an essential tool.
“We go up and do air traffic control out of the airplane,” Renner told the Outpost. “We talk to our command center, we talk to the incident commander on the ground, we talk to the ground troops and all of the aircraft coming in — helicopters and planes. We’re essentially an aerial air traffic controller.”
Renner has worked for CalFire for 17 years and has been the Battalion Chief at the Rohnerville Air Attack Base for the last two years. He said his main objective while in the air is to support the ground troops and to dictate what areas need fire retardant dropped. That is where Erik Hakenen comes in. Hakenen flies an S-2T Airtanker that can hold up to 1,200 gallons of fire retardant. Two days ago he was flying around the backside of the Mt. Shasta and went into Oregon to pick up some fire retardant.
“We’ll go anywhere,” Hakenen told the Outpost from the cockpit of the S-2T. “We protect everything equally. The goal is to keep fires to 10 acres or less.”
What allows the CalFire guys to accomplish this goal is a partnership with Humboldt County. They store their two planes at the Rohnerville Airport because of a strategy called a “tactical spread.”
“Generally, our Air Attack Bases and our helitack bases are located so that we can get aircraft anywhere in the state to a fire or an emergency incident within 20 minutes,” Renner said.
However, the Rohnerville Air Attack Base is in need of some repairs. Renner presented a list of requested considerations to the Humboldt County Airport Advisory Committee during their June 25 meeting. Some of the considerations include appropriating all or some of the land lease fees for a feasibility study for a new runway; repairing the pot-holed access road; vegetation mitigation work; and more frequent inspections at the base.
“All airports require maintenance and all airports require that the taxiway and runway — the quality and integrity of the surface — is to a standard, and we just want to make sure the County is inspecting this airport and has a plan in the next three to five years to either resurface our runway or completely renovate it like they did Garberville,” Renner said. “We just want them to know that with larger aircraft and our current fleet, that this runway is going to need some maintenance.”
Those wishes seem to have been heard. Director of Aviation Cody Roggatz said there is no hard timeline for the desired repairs but the access road will be repaired within the next month or two and the airport will be getting a resurfaced runway and taxiway within the next three years. Roggatz is currently working to find an airport engineering firm to do an analysis of the pavement at the airport before dialing down on any sort of costs, he said.
“Typically you receive federal grants for projects such as this, which will be our goal in the future, but we just need to work on the planning efforts first,” Roggatz told the Outpost.
There are six airports in Humboldt County and the department has an operating budget of $8.33 million, according to county data. CalFire pays about $25,000 annually to the county to rent the space at RAAB, and those funds stay within the Department of Aviation. However, they aren’t dedicated to RAAB, specifically. Renner voiced concern about this in his June 25 message to the advisory committee.
Also in his letter, Renner stressed the need for vegetation management and called it “a significant safety issue that gets ignored unless multiple requests get made.” As a solution, Renner pointed out the low cost of CalFire inmates and said he would like to negotiate with the Public Works Department to work out the logistics of clearing the areas. Renner said the county has not been negligent, but he would like to see the inspections happen more often.
Roggatz said he sends staff to RAAB when they become available, but he could use more staffing. The Department of Aviation faces budget constraints that keep its maintenance staff at only eight people. Roggatz said the airports are operating safely. But there is constant work to be done and they get the maintenance crews to the airports as often as they can.
RAAB allows CalFire to cover an area of approximately 4 million acres, a service to the people of eastern Trinity, northern Mendocino, and the entirety of Humboldt and Del Norte counties. As we were wrapping up, Renner asked the Outpost to include a message to the cannabis growers in the area.
“We don’t care at all about marijuana,” Renner said from the runway of RAAB. “We are just there to fight fires.”