Mobile air traffic control tower aids in California wildfire fight

By Nathan Frandino

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – Amid a worsening drought emergency and fires already blazing across California, Titus “Stretch” Gall is gearing up for another long wildfire season.

The 72-year-old former air traffic controller is the president of Tower Tech Inc, a mobile air traffic control tower company that helps agencies like the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) and the National Forest Service control the airspace over wildfires.

“They need to come and go as quickly and efficiently as they can,” Gall said, referring to aircraft used to dump flame retardant or water on wildfires.

Five years before retiring, Gall began designing what would become a nearly 14-foot-tall air traffic control tower on a trailer pulled by a truck.

The tower cab is equipped with everything an air traffic controller would require: weather-monitoring sensors, iPads to show air traffic, satellite dishes for the internet, phones and antennae for radios.

The cab is also fitted with special glass and shades so Gall and his colleagues can see clearly out across the tarmac at airfields. Amenities to keep the controllers comfortable can be found in the trailer, such as a refrigerator, toilet and shower.

Gall says his company is the first mobile air traffic control company certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a process he said took more than five years.

As of May, California authorities had documented over 1,000 more wildfires across the state this year than had erupted by the same time last year, Governor Gavin Newsom said last month.

In 2020, the state marked its heaviest wildfire season on record in terms of total acreage burned. More than 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) and over 10,000 homes and other structures were laid to waste and at least 33 lives lost.

Gall has seen conditions worsen since moving to California in the early 1980’s.

“The fire season is becoming much longer. The temperatures are getting a little bit warmer,” he said. “So we’re steadily busier and busier.”

Despite the gravity of the mission, Gall enjoys his job.

“Man, it makes me feel great,” he said, describing the thanks he receives from tanker pilots. “You can imagine that that makes you feel good because this is not a game.”

(Reporting by Nathan Frandino; Editing by Karishma Singh)

Wildfires rage in California, stoked by extreme heat in U.S. West

(Reuters) – Three large wildfires burned in California and a fourth was growing quickly on Monday as a weekend heat wave lingered across large swaths of the western United States.

The Creek Fire, which has engulfed the Fresno area in central California and caused the emergency evacuation over the weekend of more than 200 people vacationing at a popular reservoir, was still not contained as of Monday afternoon, fire officials said.

The blaze, growing under “extreme weather conditions,” had devoured nearly 79,000 acres (32,000 hectares) of land, while a cause remained under investigation, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) said in a statement.

Officials in Madera County issued evacuation orders and urged the county’s 157,000 residents to leave if they felt unsafe.

A hiker who had just embarked on a multi-day trip when the Creek Fire broke out and had to find a way out of the blaze shared the harrowing experience on social media.

“We’re safe and we’re out, but wow, we hiked our way out of the #CreekFire yesterday,” Asha Karim posted on Twitter.

The Oak Fire in Mendocino County started burning around 1:26 pm on Monday afternoon, according to CalFire, and three hours later it had already torched 1,000 acres (400 hectares) and destroyed one structure.

Videos on social media showed the fire consuming pick-up trucks as it spread along Highway 101 near Willits, California.

“If you’re trying to get out of an evacuation area please call 911 for help. Don’t delay!” the Mendocino Sheriff’s Office wrote on Twitter.

San Francisco-based power provider PG&E said late on Monday that it began turning off power in “high fire-threat” areas. The outages will impact 172,000 customers in 22 counties, mostly in the Sierra Foothills, PG&E said, adding the shut off was a safety measure due to the extreme high and dry winds.

The California Independent Systems Operator, which runs most of the state’s power grid, again urged consumers to cut back on energy consumption and said it was monitoring wildfires throughout the state threatening power lines.

In Southern California, east of San Diego, more than 400 firefighters battled the Valley Fire, which burned more than 17,000 acres (6,900 hectares)in Cleveland National Forest. Video shared on social media showed firefighters dousing the flames, the air thick with ash and fire embers.

The blaze was 3% contained on Monday evening. Officials announced the deployment of military aircraft on Monday afternoon to help fight the flames.

A fire in San Bernardino County, southeast of Los Angeles, that officials said was caused by a pyrotechnic device used during a gender reveal party, kept burning through the night and was 7% contained as of Monday morning.

On Sunday, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, San Bernardino and San Diego counties due to the wildfires, which also prompted the U.S. Forest Service to temporarily close some national forests including the Sierra National Forest, the Angeles National Forest and the San Bernardino National Forest.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Gabriella Borter in New York; additional reporting by Kanishka Singh; Editing by Leslie Adler, Peter Cooney and Michael Perry)