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Napa County declines Fire Boss planes for the 2021 Wildfire Season

"After hearing from Cal Fire, Napa County will forego an offer from a private group to base two water-dropping Fire Boss planes here this fire season for early wildfire response.

Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture offered to pay $1.5 million to lease the planes and crew from Dauntless Air. But in the face of Cal Fire opposition, the Napa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday rejected the offer for now.

“This is an awkward spot for us, because we have people offering an incredibly generous offer, but we don’t personally do the firefighting and our firefighters are saying, 'Not so fast,'” county Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said.

The county contracts with Cal Fire to operate the Napa County Fire Department. Cal Fire officials said their own water-dropping helicopters hold more water than the single-engine Fire Boss scooper planes and can refill from smaller reservoirs. The two Fire Boss planes might slow and complicate the helicopter response, Cal Fire said. Earlier this month, supervisors learned that the agency will base a water-dropping helicopter in Napa County this year, though the helicopter could leave the county on mutual aid missions, Cal Fire officials said.

Flight costs and insurance and other expenses for the two Fire Boss planes would be beyond the $1.5 million offered by Growers/Vintners for Respon

sible Agriculture to lease the planes and crews. Based on last year’s 90 wildfire dispatches, these extra costs could reach $2 million, county Fire Chief Geoff Belyea said. Cal Fire officials said the agency wouldn't pay for flight costs until after the Fire Boss planes had operated for four hours. Before then, the cost would be borne by the county. County Supervisor Diane Dillon expressed concern that the issue has more nuances than might be reaching the public. “All that’s going to be out there is, ‘You turned it down, you turned down $1.5 million,’” Dillon said. “I don’t believe that does the board a service.” Mike Hackett on behalf of the Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture said the group thought the offer of the two Fire Boss planes would have been met with open arms. That response instead has come only from the citizens, he said. Hackett asked supervisors to accept the Vintners/Growers for Responsible Agriculture offer and add the two Fire Boss planes. “If you do not — and I want this to heard by all of our citizens — this fire season will be on you,” Hackett told supervisors.

A plane equipped with Fire Boss water apparatus can hold up to 800 gallons to dump on a fire. Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture made the $1.5 million offer in the wake of wildfires that since 2017 have burned about half the county and destroyed about 1,500 structures.

The idea is that the two Fire Boss planes run by Dauntless Air would be ready to take off as soon as a local wildfire broke out, wetting it down to help keep it in check. Planes could scoop water out of Lake Berryessa and Lake Hennessey.

County Supervisor Belia Ramos said the Cal Fire message is that the Fire Boss is the wrong tool.

Board of Supervisors Chairperson Alfredo Pedroza didn’t rule out having Napa County create an initial aerial fire response capability of its own. He said he wants to see how added Cal Fire resources this fire season work out.

Cal Fire earlier this month announced it will base a helicopter in Napa County capable of dropping 1,000 gallons of water on a fire and then scoop more out of local reservoirs. It will also add 46 people to staff a 24-hour fire crew. The cost is $3 million. Pedroza asked what happens when there are multiple fires in the state and Cal Fire resources are shared.

“If you are having fires everywhere, Napa does need to ask the question, 'Do we need our own air support?'” Pedroza said, leaving the door open to future discussions on the topic.

Pedroza said the Board of Supervisors recently agreed to spend $6.4 million on vegetation management and other steps to try to curb wildfires this year. He challenged any perception that the county isn’t looking at new ways to meet the wildfire threat.

Randy Dunn of Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture welcomed the news that Cal Fire will base a water-dropping helicopter in the county this fire season. The Howell Mountain vintner still wants the Fire Boss planes, saying the county can’t have too much of a wildfire response.

“It is preposterous to think you supervisors would allow Cal Fire to reject our offer of these protective assets,” Dunn told supervisors.

Dillon later said Napa County’s recent wildfires, such as the Tubbs Fire of 2017 and Glass Fire of 2020, began at night when the Fire Boss planes couldn’t fly.

“The angst that exists Upvalley is such that these have become somewhat of an elixir, a cure-all, they’re the thing that is going to make this not happen again,” Dillon said.

The conversation needs to continue, Dillon said. But she too wants to see what added firefighting assets pledged by Cal Fire will do.

Brett L’Esperance, CEO of Dauntless Air, said this year 125 Fire Boss planes will be used around the globe. His firm has 15 Fire Boss planes and has flown more than 15,000 hours fighting fires across the nations since 2007.

States such as Washington, Idaho, Alaska and Minnesota dispatch two Fire Boss planes to a wildfire and send out a helicopter as well. The planes work with helicopters, he said.

“It shouldn’t be an either/or proposition,” he said.

Dunn said in interviews that someone in Cal Fire wanted to kill the Fire Boss idea.

“We want the truth,” Dunn said. “They work for us supposedly and we should know the truth.”

He objected that Cal Fire had three people at a table making a presentation to supervisors, while Fire Boss proponents were limited to three minutes apiece during public comments.

Representing Cal Fire at Tuesday’s meeting was County Fire Chief Belyea, Shana Jones, who is chief of the Cal Fire Sonoma Lake Napa Unit and Dennis Brown, senior chief of aviation for Cal Fire.

“We had very far from a fair shot. How can you have a discussion, how can you learn anything, if you're not able to talk?” Dunn said.

Previously, after talks with Cal Fire Director Thomas Porter, Dunn had thought the Fire Boss idea could come to fruition. But, he said, Porter called him up late Thursday and told him there would be no Fire Boss.


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