The skies over Santa Ynez Airport have been filled with helicopters coming and going for days as they attacked the Rey fire burning into the Dick Smith Wilderness east of Cachuma Lake.
As of Thursday afternoon, 15 helicopters — ranging from the giant Sikorsky Skycrane and twin-rotor Boeing Chinook to the smaller Bell Huey and its more familiar civilian brethren — were assigned to assist about 2,000 firefighters battling the 33,000-acre blaze.
Even though the Santa Ynez Airport is farther from the fire lines, helicopters began using it as a base because fog was hampering their operations at the Santa Barbara Airport, said a spokesman for the Rey Fire Unified Command information center.
After making water drops on the fire lines, the helicopters return to the airport to refuel and fill their tanks and buckets with water hauled in by tank trucks when they aren’t refilling them from Gibraltar Reservoir.
Fire officials said no water is being taken from dismally low Cachuma Lake.
“We’re drafting from wells to avoid impacting the lake any further,” the spokesman said. “The water goes into trucks, then they transfer it to tanks for the helicopters.”
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All that chopper activity has kept the usually quiet airport hopping.
“We usually just have two sheriff’s helicopters stationed here,” said Daniel Feldtkeller, a fuel technician at the airport. “Occasionally, we’ll have a helicopter student from Cal Poly fly in, but that’s it as far as helicopters.”
A 2,500-gallon military tanker truck rumbled away from the jet fuel pumps at the airport, headed off to refuel the seemingly endless rotation of helicopters, and a few minutes later another one backed up to the pumps.
“We need to top off,” a National Guard trooper called out to Feldtkeller after jumping from the cab. “Our birds are taking 900 gallons each. We need another 920 gallons.”
They carry even more water, ranging from as much as 2,000 gallons for the Chinook to 2,600 gallons for the Skycrane and up to 1,000 gallons for the Huey, although the smaller Bell copters carry from 120 to 360 gallons in their buckets.
With 15 copters making more than a dozen trips per day, a lot of water is being poured onto the fire.
“That water really helps the firefighters,” an information center spokesman said. “It really cools (the fire) and slows it down.”