MCCLELLAN PARK (CBS13) – California’s deadly wildfire season is creating a shortage of pilots for Calfire and is causing the agency to ground some aircraft.

“When the weather is high, when fire activity is high this is not the time to be having a pilot shortage,” said Brian Rice, a 30-year retired firefighter and president of the CA Professional Firefighters group.

Rice adds, “it’s concerning, this fire season is very active, some firefighters are going 30-40 days without a day off.”

According to Rice, fatigue among tanker pilots is real, given how dangerous their role is.

“It’s such a high degree of concentration involved, that little mistakes can be fatal,” he said.

Cal Fire says the shortage is mainly among low-flying S-2T tanker pilots. About four of the state’s 23 tankers have been grounded on certain days just in the past month.

“If one tanker is grounded, and they’re able to drop 6-10 loads a day, then that’s 6-10 loads that aren’t being dropped in support of ground firefighters,” said Rice.

Calfire says the shortage of pilots and the grounding of tankers is due to a number of reasons: from pilot fatigue, to retirements, to vigorous training, to aircraft needing more maintenance due to the now year-round firefighting demands.

“We are looking at recruiting additional aircraft pilot for our fleet, but In planning ahead, we are bringing in additional aircraft to cover that,” said Mike Mohler,
Calfire’s Deputy director. “Our requirements of our aircraft are year round, 365 days, so you’re gonna see our aircraft go down for maintenance, and our pilots … but we have brought in additional aircraft to cover all those agencies.”

As Cal Fire leans on private companies and federal aircraft to fill in the gaps, Mohler says “I think that’s what it boils down to, it has not impacted our response.”

Cal Fire assures the public that there has been no impact on responses to fires, but some are skeptical.

“Even though we have planes grounded cause we have a shortage you are not seeing a lack in service? I throw a flag on that,” said Rice. “If the men and women working the lines don’t have support from the air, they’re paying the price for that.”

Cal Fire estimates they’ll need about 40 more pilots in the next few years.