The Red Stuff and More: A Visit to Cal Fire’s Air Attack Base in Rohnerville

Rohnerville Air Attack Base

The large 8 ball is because Battlion 8 staffs Rohnerville Air Attack base. [ All photos by Bobby Kroeker]

With all the fires going on in California and, of course, the Tulley Fire burning in the Yurok Reservation, we were wondering how “the red stuff,” fire retardant, works. So, our reporters went on a field trip down to the Cal Fire Rohnerville Air Attack Base to find out.

Arriving in the afternoon, they were lucky enough to be able to catch the air tactical plane on the ramp.


OV-10 Air Tactical aircraft Tail # A120


Bags of the powdered retardant waiting to be broken up prior to being turned into liquid.

They chatted with ATGS FC Logan Kalfsbeek in the Tower. Kalfsbeek explained the terminology of Cal Fire Air Attack, the mixing of the secret “red stuff” (apparently it has 23 ingredients some of which are secret) and the highly technical way they break up the red powder in the 2000 lb. bags the retardant comes in—they use good old American baseball bats.

Kalfsbeek also explained how three tanks are used to prepare the retardant. He said that the Air Base can “hot load” three tankers at once in three “pits” if needed. They have up to 50,000 gallons of fire retardant at any given time.

Jeremy DeanOur reporters wandered down to the mixing station and chatted with Cal Fire crew member Jeremy Dean about the mixing of the retardant.  He explained the retardant coats the fuel of the fire and with the salt mixed in has a lasting effect of suppressing the fire.

The retardant is mostly used to prevent the fire from advancing. He explained that each fire is different and the example he used was the Tulley Fire–“It’s in steep terrain and heavy forest,” he said. The heat of the fire moves ahead of the fire and preheats the fuel in front of the fire. This makes it hard to battle the fire. (See the video explanation below.)

After washing his hands of the retardant, he continued explaining about how the retardant was used. The water tanker will lay retardant around the “head” of the fire to keep the fire from advancing. This gives the hand crews on the ground time to advance and “wrap the fire.” Ultimately the retardant helps slow down the fire. One interesting piece of information about the retardant is that after 28 days, the color goes away. The retardant acts as a fertilizer.

We continued on to the pumps and line area with Dean and asked questions about the equipment. Dean explained the “Alpha,” “Bravo” and “Charlie” tanks and that they were each 24,000 gallon tanks. He told us that on Tuesday, Aug 23 while fighting the “Tulley Fire” they pumped 22,000 gallons that day!

Shortly after talking about the tanks, we were informed that Cal Fire’s S2T Air Tanker, “Tanker 96,” was coming in from the Tulley Fire for  a “hot load” in “Pit 3.” We were given ear plugs and safety glasses (the planes throw up rocks and such sometimes) to put on and then we were placed beside the aircraft ramp to watch the landing of Tanker 96.

After Air Tanker 96 had landed and taxied to “Pit 3,” the Cal Fire ground crews were busy prepping Air Attack 120 to depart the air base. They started “hot loading” Air Tanker 96. During hot loading, the “Phos-Check MVP-FX” retardant mix is pumped into the tail of the aircraft while the aircraft’s engines are still running.

After the flurry of action on the air base, the ground crews had time to chat and pose for pics

Cal Fire Ground Crew 2

Cal Fire Ground Crew

Cal Fire Ground Crew chatting

Cal Fire Ground Crew chatting

For aviation buffs, we’ve collected the stats for Cal Fire’s OV-10A Air Tactical Aircraft and the S2T Air Tanker. Both aircraft (OV-10A Bronco Tail #: 120 and  S2T Tail #T96.) Both are stationed at Cal Fire Rohnerville Air Attack Base in Rohnerville.


MANUFACTURER:North American-Rockwell

1993, CAL FIRE bought 15 they provide a larger field of vision for the crew;and very maneuverable than older plane they used.

They are used as command and control of air-craft on a fire scene; they help incident commander on the ground know where the fire is moving and direct the air tankers and helicopter pilots to drop their loads of fire retardant and water.

Crew: Pilot and Air Tactical Group Supervisor
Gross Weight: 10,500 pounds
Max. Operating Speed: 258 mph
Range: 1,000 miles
Endurance: 5.5 hours (maximum)
Wing Span: 40 feet
Engines: Two (2) Garrett T-76 turbines (715 horsepower each)

Grumman S2T (Type III Airtanker)

MANUFACTURER:Grumman Aerospace

ORIGINAL OWNER: U.S. Navy/Marines, 1958-1975; The  S-2E/G was a carrier-based anti-submarine warfare airplane.
In 1996, CAL FIRE  acquired  26 S-2E/G plane and converted them to fire fighting configuration; with new turboprop engines and other upgrades.
The mission of the S2T is to deliver fast attack of fire retardant on wild land fires. They can fly at 270 mph carrying up to 1200 gallons of retardant ( average load about 1000 gallons of retardant)
Crew: Pilot
Gross Weight: 29,150 pounds
Max. Operating Speed: 270 mph
Range: Loaded: 500 miles/Empty: 800 miles
Wing Span: 73 feet
Endurance: 4.5 hours
Engines: Two (2) Garrett TPE331-14GR turbine engines. (1,650 horsepower each)
Thank you to the crews at Rhonerville Air base for hosting our reporters while helping the aircraft fight a fire at the same time.
References for the aircraft from Calfire:



  • That was great information and interesting. Thanks, Kym

  • You guys are awesome!

  • Fought fires a bit in 90s; hard and rewarding work; had bombers dump loads of retardant on/near us as flames advanced; pure adrenaline rush!

  • Thank you Kym, this was awesome!!!! I always wondered what was in the fire-retardent to make it put out the fires!!! Thank you again

  • Bobby Kroeker wrote another great article. Thanks for the info. We have wondered about these planes.

  • Firefighters Rule

    Cool article! Very interesting!

  • Great article !

  • Nice to learn all this info thanks .

  • Just a little trivia tid bit on Fire Trol. The gentleman that invented it, was from my hometown, Orland, CA. Wim Lely, I think I spelled his name correctly. Brilliant mind, small town boy!


    I like it.

  • Logan’s last name is KALFSBEEK-

  • Great write up and pics! I was able to go on the Naval aircraft carrier the USS Yorktown CVS 10 dependents cruise in 1961 when my dad was the Supply Officer. I was eleven years old and I got to go up into the conning tower and watch the S-2F’s get catapulted off the flight deck. What an amazing site for a little guy. They would then have war games as the S-2’s tried to locate the submarine before they could attack us with their dummy torpedoes. Something I’ll never forget!

    Wikipedia has a great write up on these amazing Grumman S-2 Tracker planes. Check it out if you are into all the details and want to know more about the history of this very useful airplane.

  • Great article!

  • Phoscheck, the “Red Stuff” has the consistency of runny snot. It makes fire tools slippery and smells like ammonia. The first time you get it on you nomex, it’s GLORY JUICE. After that you learn to roll up like a roly poly around the base of a bush. If at all possible. Stings like hell on a burn. But it’s a good sting.

  • Great article and visuals. As a retired CalFire, Mattole Station-Humboldt), it was always great to see the bombers coming in to drop a load. Once I was in the truck cab talking on the radio. Door open. The truck and I were a mess. Still glad to see them! Special thanks to the many people whose jobs keep the planes and equipment in top shape.

  • Big props to our cal fire crews!!

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