Two fires that ignited within minutes of each other on Thursday, Sept. 24, near Lake Kaweah are believed to be “hot starts.” That’s a term Cal Fire investigators use when a fire is deliberately set.
The larger of the two blazes, the Pierce Fire, consumed 12 acres before firefighters were able to control the mostly brush fire along the banks of the Kaweah River behind the Lazy J Ranch Motel. Firefighters were able to quickly gain the upper hand thanks to a relentless aerial attack of a helicopter dipping buckets of water from Lake Kaweah and two ST2 air tankers that dumped numerous loads of fire retardant.
The ST2s, stationed at Porterville, are capable of delivering 1,200 gallons of water or retardant to a precise target area. Some of the loads were dropped from as low as 200 feet above the ground.
The retardant, which slows the progress of a spreading wildfire, is a mixture of a salt compound, clay, fertilizer, and a coloring agent. Cal Fire operates 23 of the Grumman S2T air tankers; two are stationed at the Porterville Air Attack Base.
The aerial drops from both the helicopter and the air tankers are directed by another tactical aircraft that circles the fire overhead at a higher altitude. When wildland fires break out, it’s the aerial attack that usually determines whether the fire is quickly brought under control or grows into a full-fledged disaster.
While aircraft and firefighters were shuttled between the two fires, a Three Rivers motorist in the traffic lineup reported seeing an unidentified man on the west side of the roadway acting suspiciously and gesturing with his hands as if he was conducting an orchestra of aircraft. Another woman at the scene reported seeing the same man set the one-half acre fire near Horse Creek.
Investigators interviewed the individual, and he was arrested for being under the influence of drugs. The suspect was seen by witnesses at both fires.
In addition to the aircraft, six engines, five crews, and one water tender responded to the two fires. National Park Service firefighters, and the Tulare County Fire Department assisted Cal Fire in the incident.