Neptune crews faced long hours, heavy smoke and wind flying California fires

Flames consume a car dealership as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Neptune Aviation in Missoula received a call for help that morning and was en route to California with six air tankers later that day. (AP Photo/Noah Berger via Courthouse News)

When the call came in from California in early November asking for help, Neptune Aviation mobilized its air crews and fired up its tankers.

Four of the company’s BAe146 bombers were sitting on the ramp at Missoula International Airport covered in snow and ice. Thousands of miles south, California was fighting its deadliest and most destructive fire ever.

“We spent about six hours getting flight crews in here and getting our airplanes cleaned up, or what we call ‘wake them up.’” said Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation. “Within six hours, we had four aircraft en route to California to help them out.”

Six Neptune tankers are now stationed in California, working two major fires and several smaller ones. Two dozen Neptune personnel from across the Northern Rockies are assigned to the aircraft, logging 12-hour days when the smoke and wind allows them to fly.

“Early on the Camp fire, it seemed like every other day they couldn’t use them because of smoke and wind,” Hooper said. “The last seven days, the winds have died down. They’ve been dropping out ahead of the fire after it made that initial run and took out that town of Paradise.”

When Neptune got the call on Nov. 8, a member of a California incident management team was driving toward Paradise, where he noted black smoke rising from the forest.

As the LA Times reported on Tuesday, it meant burning structures – not just trees – leading one firefighter to describe what he saw as an “urban conflagration.” Since then, thousands of homes have been incinerated and at least 81 people have died.

The latest statistics suggest 700 people are still missing, 10,000 homes have been lost and 150,000 acres have burned. Hooper relayed what his flight crews have witnessed from the air.

“Early on, they were working on structure protection and trying to pinch it (the fire) off,” Hooper said. “With that many acres and that much area to cover, the wind just made it very, very difficult. The dry fuel conditions are bad enough, but then they had 40 to 60 mph winds for about a week.”

Neptune crews have flown 90 hours in the last 10 days. While the aircraft can handle the workload, Hooper said, the long hours and stress of the job can lead to fatigue among personnel.

“They’re flying every minute they can when the smoke and wind cooperates,” he said. “That’s a lot in terms of fatigue and the amount of flying, and it indicates that it’s a very serious situation down there.”

As of Tuesday, Neptune’s tankers were stationed across California, including the cities of Sacramento, San Bernardino and Ramona. They’ve flown on the Camp fire – the deadliest so far – and a second large fire near Malibu.

While progress on this year’s fire front will depend on the weather, Hooper said his last airplane didn’t come back from California last year until January. This year may not be any different, he added.

“Gov. (Jerry) Brown refers to this as the new normal,” Hooper said. “They don’t have ‘fire season’ in California, they have fire years. In terms of the history of fires, it’s unusual. But if you look at the last five years, it has become the new normal.”

When Neptune mobilized for California, Hooper said, three flight crew members were in Missoula. The others lived elsewhere, including Wyoming and Boise, Idaho. A charter plane flew a circuit to pick them up.

That took time, though Neptune’s crews were willing and able to respond. They’ll likely spend Thanksgiving fighting California’s wildfires.

“They’re supposed to get some moisture in Northern California this week, but they don’t anticipate any of that hitting the southern part of the state,” Hooper said. “I anticipate we’ll be there through the end of the month at least, and we’ll see what happens with the weather.”