Aerial tanker drop at Vandenberg Air Force Base

An aerial tanker drops Phos-Chek on a wildfire burning on Vandenberg Air Force Base in this photo from September 2016

Len Wood, Staff

In 2005, Brian Bruns and two other members of his crew were killed in the rugged foothills of the Sierra Nevada near Chico. They were flying a training mission in a Grumman P-3 Orion aircraft converted to a fire-retardant tanker.

That aircraft can deploy up to 3,000 gallons of life-saving fire retardant to protect firefighters on the ground.

Brian was also a reservist with the U.S. Navy. He flew the P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft with VP-65 at Naval Air Station Point Mugu near Ventura that tracked submarines.

He was one of the most liked and accomplished pilots in our squadron. I enjoyed flying with him immensely; he brought out the best in everyone.

He once told me that a “borate bomber” was the fastest way to slow down a wildfire.

The term “borate bomber” was coined by the media and it stuck, but borate was only employed for a couple of years in aerial firefighting and hasn’t been used for nearly six decades.

Today, the fire retardant is a slurry of mostly water and fertilizer. A common type is called Phos-Chek. It works by coating the ground and plants with a moisture barrier.

The mixture is dyed bright red to allow tanker pilots to deploy a seamless line of retardant in front of an advancing fire.

Tragically, another former Navy P-3 pilot, Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, was killed in 2014 when his S-2 Tracker aircraft crashed while battling a wildfire in Yosemite National Park.

When he wasn’t fighting fires, he taught biochemistry at UC Santa Cruz. He left behind a wife and two daughters.

The S-2 aircraft that he piloted used to fly from aircraft carriers in the 1950s and ’60s and has since been converted to fight wildfires for Cal Fire. The aircraft’s bomb bay that used to drop torpedoes now drops up to 1,200 gallons of flame retardant from its belly.

The loss of Hunt and other firefighters underscores the severity of wildfires. It seems like every day lately brings mushroom-like pyrocumulus clouds that tower over the Central Coast from wildfires in the inland areas.

Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties have seen well above typical July, August and September temperatures away from the coastline.

Last year’s rain season — July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017 — delivered near to above-average precipitation for many Central Coast locations, which in turn created huge amounts of grass and other seasonal vegetation.

That vegetation is interwoven with large amounts of dead fuel from the multiyear California drought.

Unfortunately, wildfires are likely to get worse in the future. As any firefighter will tell you, three ingredients are needed to have a fire: oxygen, heat and fuel. It’s called the ”fire triangle.”

A heat source, such as a spark from a trailer chain hitting the highway, can cause a fire to ignite. But the heat also preheats the fuel in the fire’s path, allowing it to spread.

Warm temperatures and stronger-than-normal winds not only help to dry vegetation through evaporation but also provide plenty of oxygen for combustion.

Overall, warmer temperatures, cumulative winds and abundant fuel have fed into a dreadful feedback loop.

Average yearly temperatures are forecast to rise by six degrees by the end of this century. Locally, temperature records keep falling like bowling pins.

According to Cal Fire, a 300 percent increase in wildfire risk in nonurban areas of California is predicted by 2050 due to climate change.

Learn more about it

I will be speaking on climate change and its consequences for California at the "Sharks After Dark" fundraising event at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, at the Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach.

I would love to see you there.

John Lindsey is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.

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