Skimming his amphibious air tanker across Santa Monica Bay, pilot Jacques Bherer scooped hundreds of gallons of water into its hold before heading toward a brush fire surging up a Burbank hillside. A push of a button sent a torrent of water onto the flames, then the Canadian CL-415 SuperScooper headed back to the ocean to reload, as it and a stablemate made dozens of drops during the Sept. 30-Oct. 2 fire that blackened 1,045 acres in the Verdugo Mountains. “We’re very happy to help. We certainly made a difference. But we’re not the only ones there,” said Bherer, 57. “At the end of the day, when the fire’s out, it’s a good feeling for sure. You’ve done something useful.” Bherer is one of a team of pilots who fly the $35 million SuperScoopers on a contract with Los Angeles County. The pilots are stationed on standby at the Van Nuys Airport on a one-month rotation between October and December – Southern California’s fire season. “You can’t put a price tag on that.” As November approaches and the weather has cooled, two Bombardier-built CL-415 airplanes sit on the tarmac of the Van Nuys Airport, their tanks fully loaded with 1,621 gallons of water. Powered by two 2,800 horsepower Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines, the planes are built to be easy to maneuver and fly at low speeds. Pilots can fly over lakes, rivers and seas as shallow as 6.5 feet deep and as narrow as 300 feet wide. At 70 knots over 1,350 feet, the plane’s tanks can be filled in 12 seconds. Pilot Louis Poulin, 52, said Southern California is a challenge to fly with its power lines, antennas, heavy air traffic, and precipitous terrain, much different from the vast Canadian forests where he fights fires during the summer. “You have to check for power lines, traffic, helicopters, terrain,” he said in French-accented English. “You need your eyes open.” He gets an adrenaline kick out of flying over fire. “It’s the best flying in the world. It’s very fun to fly and land on a runway, the sea, lakes and rivers.” Yaroslavsky said these pilots are cool as cucumbers. “They have nerves of steel,” he said. “They’re in the Chuck Yeager mold. They could come within 6 inches of crashing into a ridgeline and they’d tell you they had five inches to spare with no problem.” Jason Kandel, (818) 546-3306 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week Since 1994, the county has contracted for SuperScoopers with the province of Quebec, which owns the planes. Today, the county pays more than $2 million for two planes over three months. Quebec pays the pilots’ salaries. The yellow-and-red planes arrive every year with much fanfare from local officials who say they are a boon to Southland firefighting. “They’re part of our arsenal in Southern California,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “They have become a staple in that arsenal over a decade.” But critics have argued the planes aren’t as accurate with their water drops as the county and Los Angeles’ firefighter helicopters, can’t drop the chemical fire retardant used by state and federal air tankers, and are too expensive for how often they respond to fires – which can range from one fire a season to as many as 15. “It’s not a precise science,” said Battalion Chief Anthony Marrone, who heads the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s air operations. “But they get to the scene fast. Sometimes they have very accurate drops. And they put the head of the fire down.
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