-- and the politics of aerial firefighting

Canadair's CL-415s in Los Angeles County

© 1998 Kelly Andersson
Contributing Editor

This story originally ran in
the September ‘98 issue of
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The Canadian SuperScoopers are the darlings of the media in L.A. County, and the heroes of the skies in the eyes of much of the interface-thick Southern California general public. It's just the rest of the firefighting community who hate them.

Management personnel with the Los Angeles County Fire Department like ‘em, and homeowners in the hills who've had their houses saved from raging brushfires like ‘em a lot. But things are a little snarly in the fire community. Both groundpounders and those who fight fire from the air insist that L.A. County would be money and effectiveness ahead by contracting helitankers or U.S. waterscoopers, or by buying retrofitted military surplus — or darned near anything but leasing or buying SuperScoopers from Canada. The detractors blame politics, make allegations about skewed studies and bought-off politicians, and repeatedly claim that the L.A. media have mindlessly championed the cause of the target-missing SuperScoopers in favor of the fire-pasting helicopters.

No one claiming buy-outs or backroom deals seems to have any evidence, of course, but rumors and gossip repeated often enough seem to take on a truth of their own. And the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) is going ahead with this season's lease of SuperScoopers anyway. Two CL-415s leased from the Province of Québec arrived in September, accompanied by fanfare (the land of 1,000 press conferences) and airshows and the attention of local impressionable media. The lease agreement with Québec, valued at a little over $1 million, doesn't include flight hours but does include maintenance and pilots — Québec provides the pilots, two at a time, who are on duty for 30 days before being rotated halfway through the contract. Last year the contract was extended beyond 60 days, and with flight hours included, totaled $1.6 million.

The LACoFD provides fire protection and emergency medical services for 51 cities and the unincorporated areas of the county, which has a population of more than 9 million people over its 2,200 square miles. The LACoFD's 3,500-plus employees are stationed at 157 facilities. Canadair's CL-215T gained fame in Southern California during the fall fire seasons of 1994 and 1995 while first on lease with the LACoFD for operational evaluation. From the beginning, firefighters both on the ground and in the air have said that the aircraft were limited by the area's steep terrain and high winds.

The planes have been popular with the press and the public, though — the SuperScoopers are dramatic and sexy. It's easy to see how residents fidgeting at the edges of their hillside estates, gripping their garden hoses and watching a fire race up the slope across from them, would see the Scoopers as some kind of rescue angel from the skies. Anything in the air fighting a fire is impressive, but imagine the reaction of moms and tykes at a county park watching a CL-415 scoop from the reservoir. Those reactions have reportedly spawned public pressure on the county politicians, which has undoubtedly played a role in keeping Scoopers airborne over L.A. County.

The CL-415 amphibian is a high-wing turboprop with a four-compartment, four-door water tank system. It has a capacity of 1,622 gallons of water/foam mixture. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW123AF turboprops and featuring an air-conditioned glass cockpit, the CL-415 began its world tour with an initial order of 20 planes — Québec ordered eight and France ordered a dozen. Italy followed in 1994 with an order for four; they bought two more in 1996. Croatia bought one in 1997 and Ontario bought nine this year. There are 36 CL-415s in service around the world, and this is the third year they've been on duty in L.A. County.

Captain Steve Valenzuela, a public information officer with the LACoFD, explains how their fire season is different from that of, say, Seattle, and what that means in terms of initial attack from the air. "At the start of every fire season, members of the news media ask the same question," he says. "'When is the fire season going to be over?' Each year our reply is the same: ‘Fire season in Los Angeles County is all year long.'" The area is known for its late autumn Santa Ana season, which brings hot dry winds — often gusting to 80 mph or better — from the north or northeast, along with low relative humidities and extended high temperatures. Add to those conditions the heavy fuels and volatile fuel types in the area — and their proximity to homes and other structures — and you go beyond year-round fire season to an annual tinderbox season in a county that's got more interface than some states.

No one who was in L.A. County five years ago has forgotten the 1993 firestorms. More than 500 homes were lost, and damages ran upwards of $1 billion. The next year the LACoFD started flying turbine-powered scoopers — CL-215Ts leased from Québec— and they later agreed to lease a couple CL-415s. L.A. County's government is the largest county government in the U.S., and the county Board of Supervisors doubles as the board of directors of the county fire department. They approve and sign for the contracts that allow the fire department to buy engines or lease aircraft. Beginning in 1996, the board allowed the fire department to enter into a five-year agreement with Québec. "The contract includes leeway for us to not activate the seasonal lease," explains Battalion Chief Jim Holdridge, the LACoFD's director of air operations. "And the chief has the option to activate a seasonal lease. He's done it now three years in a row. The Province of Québec can give us a restatement of rates each year, and we then have the option to accept it or not. There was no rate change this year."

After the 1993 fires, L.A. County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman established a goal — beefed-up air ops. He figured that initial aerial attack, early on and heavy, was the way to keep small fires small — and one of his best hedges against further major firestorms. "The decision to evaluate the CL-215T was bold and expensive for a local fire agency, especially when we had depended upon state or federal agencies for fixed-wing airtankers in the past," said Freeman then. "We could be bold on our own, but we really needed help with the expense."

They looked for funding from both private and government sources. They initially partnered up with the insurance industry to get the evaluation off the ground, and received assistance from FEMA, the Personal Insurance Federation of California, and individual insurance companies. The county also got some assistance from Canadair, according to Valenzuela. "The aircraft existed," he says, "and we were looking for other alternatives to work into our arsenal of firefighting equipment. The evaluation was facilitated by the partnership with Canadair, who got us an aircraft at their cost the first year. The chief wanted to evaluate the possibility of making them an initial response resource, rather than waiting for a request for tankers to come from the state or federal agencies. During that evaluation, we often heard on the radio the SuperScoopers arriving on the fire before the ground forces could get there." On the Mettler Fire in late 1995, for example, the Scooper pasted a 400-foot flank and killed it. It would have taken ground crews at least 25 minutes to even get there, much less set up a helispot for bucket work. The Scooper had a mere eight minutes turnaround time on the drops, drowning the fire before it had a chance to get up and romp.

"The goal of the Scooper in initial attack is to get a lot of water on the fire fast," says Valenzuela. "Though the aircraft haven't been entirely successful doing that, they were successful on many fires where they were utilized. They were never looked at as a panacea. We are still continuing to look at other aircraft that could be another resource."

"We don't limit ourselves," he adds. "We have a variety of aircraft at our disposal. There are other agencies and other companies developing other resources. We observed a demo of the Martin Mars, for example, and we saw this aircraft drop seven thousand gallons of water."

One segment of the fire community that's especially vocal about their opposition to the Canadian planes is the U.S. airtanker pilots, many of whom fly tankers for companies that contract with the federal government or state fire management agencies. "It is our belief that a combination of both retardant land-based tankers and a cost-effective water scooper like the PBY working together is effective," says PBY pilot John Wells, whose company has a call-when-needed contract with the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (CDF). "When the regular contract airtankers are busy on other fires, or in areas that lack land-based airtankers, we sit loaded with retardant and respond on initial attack fires. We cross the head with two 500-gallon drops, and then move into the quick turnaround mode of water scooping. Our record to date is 41,000 gallons of water and foam in 3½ hours."

Wells thinks the CL-415 is way too expensive for what L.A. County is getting. "For the price of one CL-415 you can have a fleet of other aircraft, along with pilots and maintenance. The Los Angeles County taxpayers pay $1.5 million for two aircraft on a 60-day standby arrangement — not including fuel. For the cost of one CL-415 you could build three state-of-the-art Grumman Albatross Turbine constant-flow retardant/scooper aircraft — $21 million will buy a lot of turbine S-2 aircraft or a gaggle of PBYs. They could place them all over the county like fire engines."

The LACoFD did consider costs in their ongoing leases with Québec, but they figure the quick response of the Canadian planes, coupled with their considerable payload and their turboprop engines, changes the accounting. They say the SuperScooper's ability to knock down a fire reduces the cost and flight hours they'd pay for with smaller-capacity aircraft.

"Had the L.A. County supervisors utilized our aircraft instead of the SuperScoopers, L.A. County would have saved $1.2 million each year," says Wells. "Water-bombing aircraft must drop the water and foam on the seat of the fire, just like a firefighter dragging a hose line up into the back bedroom of a two-story house where the fire is. Retardant tankers make an indirect attack adjacent to the fire; they seldom are required to drop on the actual fire. A piston-powered PBY, though, does effectively drop water on the actual fire. The CL-415 and 215 rarely can in our area, because unlike the PBY, the wing loading is different. The CL-415 cannot safely slow down to drop accurately in high winds and turbulence."

Wells says it's not just the wind that's a problem with the Canadian planes. Rough conditions on the ocean are tough to scoop in, and he says his PBY is better suited. "The PBY has retractable wing floats," he explains. "This aircraft was designed to operate in the ocean. The CL was not. The PBY has 12 feet of clearance when scooping in the rough water found off of Malibu; the CL has only two feet. The CL had a wing float torn off a few years ago while troughing off Malibu. For $21 million you should be getting 100 percent scooping reliability."

According to the LACoFD records, though, the plane did not have a wing float torn off — they had one dented, and the pilots didn't even notice it was dented until they landed later that day. Whether it was dented because of the rough water or by an object in the water was never determined, but it did not stop operations. And, as Canadair and the CL-415 pilots point out, the SuperScoopers operate out of oceans all over the world.

Wells, who's on the board of directors of the Associated Airtanker Pilots, tried repeatedly — and to no avail — to convince the LACoFD that he could offer them a better deal on a contract with his planes. When that didn't work, he even tried the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. No deal, they told him. "We received nine proposals in 18 months from John Wells," says Holdridge. "If L.A. County was approached with a meaningful project, we would evaluate it. But we're not obligated to take them on. We look at the value of the service provided, and we evaluated his proposals and — though his program was substantially lower in cost — it wasn't comparable to the program and flight performance characteristics offered by the SuperScoopers."

Wells figures his proposal was meaningful. "It would save the taxpayers $1.2 million per year," he says. "The aircraft is available year-round within L.A. County, U.S. pilots and mechanics are employed, and the valuable tax dollars stay local."

It's a common rant from members of the U.S. firefighting community that the taxpayers of L.A. County are providing jobs for Canadians. What they ignore — or don't know — is the jobs provided to U.S. citizens by Bombardier and its amphibious aircraft division called Canadair. "We employ over eight thousand people in the United States," says Bud Melges, director of sales in the Americas for Bombardier's amphibious division. "Bombardier is doing about three-quarters of a billion dollars in business this year just in the state of California. Bombardier owns Learjet, based in Kansas, and we have a facility in Tucson, and we have plants in Florida and finance divisions all over the country."

Critics also repeatedly bring up the fact that the SuperScoopers have missed a lot of targets on L.A. County fires. During the 1994 and 1995 fire seasons, the LACoFD evaluated the SuperScoopers for use as initial attack aircraft, and they produced a 25-page report on their evaluation. Their objectives included evaluating the ability of the Scoopers to respond and arrive on the fire in 20 minutes or less, the ease of integrating the Scoopers into other air and ground operations, and the aircraft's effectiveness in extinguishing or limiting the spread of wildland fires in the initial attack phase.

The county did not figure the SuperScoopers would be the silver bullet of fire fighting, and they weren't. They offer some advantages for wildland fire suppression, but did not prove to be an exceptional resource to operate in all terrains of the county in any moderate to high wind conditions, according to the report. The aircraft were found to be less effective on incidents where winds were in excess of 20 mph, and over steep and/or mountainous terrain. On the 1995 wind-driven Towsley Fire, for example, the aircraft were judged ineffective. The fire was already ripping when they got there, though, and the terrain was steep. However, on the other fires the Canadians flew that year, they were judged effective on all but two, and they achieved knockdowns on three fires. Evaluations were conducted by county fire management, helicopter pilots, and ground personnel, and they agreed that high winds were a problem. The report concludes that the county should continue to consider the use of the aircraft until other more effective initial attack aircraft with a minimum capacity of 800 gallons are identified.

Other qualities the county's after include quick response and the ability to rapidly and repeatedly deliver large volumes of fire suppressant. The SuperScoopers passed with flying colors on the quick response portion of their test. Over 80 percent of the county's landscape, they're on the fire in 15 minutes or less. In over 95 percent of the county, they're there in 20 minutes or less — and they can be over Catalina Island in 29 minutes. The planes averaged 14 minutes from dispatch to arrival on the fire in 1994, and they cut it to 131/2 minutes the next year. On average, they were airborne in 41/2 minutes from the time of dispatch. Their availability was even better — 96 percent in 1994 and 98 percent in 1995. Of the two aircraft on contract, they had one down for two days in 1994, and one down for one day in 1995. They had at least one ready to roll at all times.

That availability, and the immediate response, have influenced the county's decision to get the Canadian aircraft on contract and keep them on. A wait of 45 minutes or so for a tanker to get over a range fire in southern Oregon is one thing. A few minutes of brushfire in L.A. County can mean many millions of dollars — there are houses in the county that are worth three or four times what the LACoFD pays for the 60-day lease. Aircraft from CDF or the federal agencies are fast, but the LACoFD went looking for immediate initial attack from the air. And they found it in the SuperScoopers.

Christopher Barnes, who hopes to eventually land himself a job as a tanker pilot, figures that L.A. County (or any government agency, for that matter) would be way ahead of the game by acquiring and refurbishing the retired aircraft that are available as military surplus. "There are currently 114 P-3s, 100 C-130s, and 32 S-2s in the desert bone yard at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, all of which could be tanked and used as fire fighting aircraft for far less than the $20 million needed to buy one SuperScooper or even the $1.5 million needed to lease two for 60 days. These aircraft could be given to any government agency willing to operate them for fire fighting or drug interdiction," says Barnes. "State and county agencies are able to use the Federal Excess Property Program as well as the feds."

"It's not that the Scoopers don't work," he adds. "However, in practical matters you must look at the history of airtankers in this country, the surplus military aircraft that are about to be smelted into ingots of aluminum. There are enough airplanes in the desert to supply the United States tanker needs for the next 50 years."

"L.A. County doesn't purchase or use military surplus aircraft," says Holdridge. "The decision was made years ago that we'd not get into the public aircraft or military surplus. We've gone the route of buying and leasing; our budget for seasonal contract aircraft, for five or six months, has ranged between $1.6 million in 1994 and about $3.2 million this year." Holdridge explains that the county prefers to divide that money among several different programs rather than rehabbing a surplus aircraft or hiring on pilots for retrofitted aircraft. "We look at multi-mission aircraft when we buy," he adds. "We wouldn't consider buying a Skycrane, for example, or a fixed-wing or any single-mission seasonal-use aircraft. If you pull aircraft out of the Arizona desert and convert them, then you hire pilots. We are running the EMS and fire fighting programs as effectively and efficiently as possible, and our helicopter fleet takes care of 95 percent of our fires. That's why we are looking at turnkey lease operations for seasonal aircraft."

Detractors in the anti-Canadian contingent correctly point out that CDF is not rallying round the Canadian cause or making any plans to lease, buy, or borrow SuperScoopers. "It's a fine plane," says Roger Mattson, CDF's aircraft conversion manager at Mather. "It drops foam, it drops water, and it has its place, but it does not meet the requirements of the State of California. We just had a report finished up by an outside consultant, done strictly for CDF, to establish which aircraft was our best alternative. It shows that the turbinizing of the S-2 is the way for us to go." Mattson, who was a maintenance mechanic and flew tankers for Aero Union before his tour with CDF, explains that the first eight S-2s, from Davis Monthan, were acquired from the federal Department of Defense through the Federal Excess Property Program. The ongoing effort by CDF to retrofit their fleet of S-2s would not mesh well with a concurrent attempt to acquire one or more SuperScoopers. CDF is committed to an airworthy fleet of S-2s, and that's what the agency's budget is committed to also.

"This year, Governor Pete Wilson proposed adding funds to the firefighting budget to begin evaluating and acquiring CL-415s," says Dan Blackburn of Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm that's had a U.S. contract for several years with Canadair. "No funding would have been diverted from the S-2 retrofit or any other CDF program."

The way CDF sees it, though, their S-2 conversion program is the way to go. They compared the CL-415, P-3s, S-2s, S-3s, and ST-2Hs, and concluded that CDF should go with additional S-2Ts; they're purchasing 15 more — for a total of 23 planes. The aircraft flown by CDF have all been acquired through the Federal Excess Property Program; California doesn't own them. They're "on loan" from the federal government, and CDF gets them "for free," but they have to give them back when they're done with them. "Or they could ask for them back," says Mattson, "but that's not too likely."

If L.A. County were to acquire and convert military surplus, though, they'd then have year-round maintenance and pilot costs, which they don't have now. They don't see the scoopers or other contract aircraft as a year-round commitment; they figure the SuperScoopers are one of their options for the seasonal peak of fire danger in their wildland/urban interface.

"The SuperScoopers are the best tool developed thus far for interface firefighting," says Blackburn. "The interface is expanding, and what used to be a safety buffer between wildland fires and residential areas is gone."

He's got a good point. According to Neil Sampson, who coordinates scientific and policy studies for the American Forestry Association and is the author of Public Programs for Private Forestry, the fastest growth rates in metro areas such as Denver are in the highest fire danger areas. "And there's been a change in ownerships," says Sampson. "The number of property owners is increasing, and the size of the parcels is decreasing." The SuperScoopers proved their worth in fighting interface fires during the Florida fire siege [see story page 12, September ‘98 WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER Magazine] and L.A. County is basically one big wildland/ urban interface. Florida, though, is flat as a sheet of paper, with a lot of water and a lack of Santa Ana winds. Even so, the SuperScoopers in L.A. County — given the short time they've been there and the moderate fire seasons since 1993 — have been documented as useful by the fire department and warmly received by the general public and the media. Well, most of the media.

Bob Tur of L.A. News Service saw quite a bit of the SuperScoopers during his tour as a KCBS-TV Channel 2 news helicopter pilot. "The Scoopers were brought in for political reasons," says Tur. "We had an outraged community upset with Mother Nature. Ill-informed people who don't understand the forces of nature were trying to blame it on the fire department and local politicians. So they were under pressure to do something about this. It was a terrible situation the fire department found themselves in, and there was some incredibly smart marketing done by Canadair. They were able get these albatrosses into the county, even though they're not made for this terrain. There's very little water here, and with the winds here, the Scoopers cannot be functional. They just don't work well in the terrain and don't work well in turbulence. This was the political answer to appease homeowners."

Tur says that after the community saw hundreds of homes burned in the 1993 firestorms, and with the public railing at them to do something about it, the city council, the county supervisors, and the fire department were approached by Canadair with a product and a good sales campaign. "The firefighters know," says Tur. "But the media don't know, and the public doesn't know, the fires in the L.A. County area are brush fires — and they're fed by blowtorch winds. The smart firefighter doesn't worry so much about the brush burning as they worry about protecting homes. The fire department's best asset is water-dropping helicopters. They can fight fire with surgical accuracy and save homes, something the Scooper can't do. The first time they did a water drop, up in the Hollywood Hills, after the fire was out they brought the Scoopers in with water to drop on the smoldering ashes, and they missed the mark. They can't fly low enough or slow enough to do it. I saw that numerous, numerous times. With 60 to 100 mph winds, the water is actually carried away. The borate bombers drop on a fire and they retard the spread of the fire, but they don't have the money to maintain those old aircraft — some of those pilots are flying planes that are older than they are. But Bombardier has the money to bring in this new one. You can fault the news media, but they make no independent analysis. The bomber pilots brought this upon themselves. They don't allow the news media helicopters to get the shots they need; it's their own tactics. They're a bunch of cowboys riding the range of fire and dropping retardant, and in this environment you have to be a PR person selling your product. These guys don't get it — they're their own worst enemies. In L.A. County, they brought in Erickson and other heavy helicopters; there's a lot of call for that, and those make sense in an urban environment. But the SuperScooper people didn't go to the fire department right away, because the fire department was initially reluctant about it. They went directly to the city and the county and the media."

Wells, of course, takes issue with this. "The U.S. airtanker pilots are not cowboys. They are a dedicated group of individuals who risk their lives every day saving lives, homes, and property from the ravages of fire. The decision to limit the number of news helicopters on a fire, or to direct them to a different altitude or area, is done by the air tactical group supervisor — not the pilots."

Tur accurately points out, though, that Canadair initially approached the city, the county, and the media. Then they went to the State of California — though CDF's evaluation of the aircraft concluded that the Canadian planes were not for them, Canadair lobbied the state legislature to buy additional aircraft. In mid-August the Valley Industry and Commerce Association (VICA) asked state legislators to include extra funding in the state's $76 billion budget to help pay for additional Scoopers during fire season.

"Based on CDF's water resources maps, virtually 100 percent of all wildland/urban interface fire areas are within ten miles of scoopable water," says Blackburn. "VICA is the preeminent industry and commerce association in the San Fernando Valley, and they have spent a substantial amount of time evaluating the viability of these aircraft. They concluded that it made a great deal of sense — economically and safety-wise — for the state to begin the process of acquiring CL-415s. Based on a unanimous vote by their legislative committee, they sent a letter to the governor and legislative leaders urging them to move promptly to begin the process of acquiring four planes, and extending that later to ten planes for the state."

Though it's not clear what the qualifications of the VICA folks are that enable them to "evaluate the viability" of CL-415s for use in aerial firefighting, the state didn't go for it. Blackburn says the price tag on a CL-415 is $21 million in U.S. dollars, but it wouldn't have been paid up front. Canadair proposed a lease/purchase arrangement — turned down first by the State of California and subsequently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — that would have allowed for staggered delivery of the aircraft and a 15- or 20-year payment plan. "Since the planes have an estimated 40- to 60-year lifespan, it's a very good deal," Blackburn said. "For example, California's initial price would have been only $4.5 million for the first year of acquisition, with a delivery of four planes and more to come on a mutually agreed production and delivery schedule."

Critics and supporters alike say the use of the Canadian planes in L.A. County is a matter of dollars and sense. Detractors point out that the peak use runs about eight weeks a year, when the Santa Ana winds blow and when the SuperScoopers have proven (locally at least) to be at their worst. They say buying one or more for the state — much less the federal government — would be insanity. They figure if you have one down for maintenance and two ready to respond, you've got three planes at a cost of $21 million each, with another $5 million or so thrown in for miscellaneous and sundry expenses such as maintenance and hangars, so you've got an investment of nearly $70 million that sits idle for more than half the year. The L.A. City Fire Department, by comparison, pays under $6 million apiece for its Bell 412 choppers, and a quick stab at the math gives you something like eight or nine or ten helicopters for the same price — helicopters that can be used all year round for Medevac, search & rescue, and fighting fire.

Al Hymers works for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources; he's based in Dryden, Ontario. He says there's no comparison between a CL-415 and other water-scooping aircraft. "Since I have flown both, I can assure you that a PBY does not even come close to fitting into the same league as a CL-415," says Hymers. "About the only thing they have in common is they scoop water. There is absolutely no way a PBY could handle stronger winds and rougher water than a CL-415. Whether or not the CL-415 can do the job in California is another question. I don't see why they couldn't — they do the job in similar terrain and climate all over the world — Italy, Turkey, France, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Mexico, western Canada — why would California be the only place they can't do the job? We all know that there are certain times and certain conditions when nothing will do the job."

"I have seen a CL-415, in 3.8 hours flight time, that ferried out 45 minutes, dropped 66 loads (over 100,000 gallons) and ferried back in 45 minutes," he adds. "I doubt there is any aircraft, scooper or long-term hauler, that could match these numbers. We do this kind of performance on a regular basis with the CL-415. We have had drops as high as 86 (over 130,000 gallons delivered) in one four-hour mission. I think even the Mars would have a hard time matching these numbers. As for the cost of operating these aircraft, if L.A. County is spending $1.5 million to protect their citizens and property from the ravages of fire, it is money well spent."

As Hymers points out, water scoopers and land-based tankers have different roles, and they can and do work side by side in many countries. "You can look at the technological age difference between the PBY and a CL-415 as you would the difference between a P-51 Mustang — a front-line fighter in World War II — and today's F-16 Fighter," says Hymers. "I don't think for a minute if the enemy was threatening people and property, the taxpayers would be saying, ‘Send in the P-51s, because the F-16s are too expensive,' unless maybe you were the owner of the P-51s and you stood to make some money. What Canadair has done is brought fire fighting into the 21st century."

"With the exception of the Canadair scoopers, every aircraft fighting fire today was conceived and built with a totally different role in mind," adds Hymers. "When they became too old or not effective enough for the role — or when newer and better ones took over the role — they were bastardized and converted to the role of a firefighter. The Canadair machines were conceived for one reason, and that was to fight fire. And that is why they do it so well. I have been flying water bombers for 15 years. I started out on a PBY, moved to the CL-215 for 12 years, and am now spending my first season on the CL-415. I can tell you from experience that the CL-215 is everything I ever wished a PBY could be, and now the 415 is everything I ever wished the 215 could be."

The CL-415 may not be the perfect aerial firefighter. It is, though, one good tool in a mixed bag, and that's how the LACoFD see it. "We're not planning to buy any," says Holdridge. "Our intent is the turnkey lease. This project is not over with; it's an ongoing trial. We don't know what the final mix of contract aircraft is going to look like, but it will be a mixed bag."