Topanga’s 1993 Fire Led To Leasing Two CL-415

Tony Morris,  Topanga, CA  5.15.2012


As a survivor of the Topanga-Malibu wildfire of 1993 which started on Old Topanga Canyon only a mile from our house in the Fernwood neighborhood of Topanga I became interested in firefighting  aircraft, particularly the Canadair CL-415 , by necessity. I wanted to know why Bell 412 helicopters operated by the Los Angeles County Fire Department were not able to stop the wildfire  when it started on Old Topanga Canyon Road.  

Viewing Breaking News on Los Angeles television station Channel 7 I ran outside the house to see a 3,000 foot smoke cloud rising over Old Canyon. I grabbed my video camera and started filming.

We had to evacuate from our house in Fernwood when firefighters from Alturas California , camped out in our neighbor’s driveway during the course of the wildfire, told us they could no longer protect us.

The wildfire killed three individuals and destroyed more than 400 homes, causing $400 million in property damage. Shortly after the fire was extinguished I invited a group of Topangans to meet and share their experiences during the fire. We began discussing the Canadair CL-415 firefighting aircraft. I contacted Bombardier Amphibious Aircraft in Montreal, Quebec, to ask the company to send a representative to Topanga.


CL-415  Credit: Wikipedia Commons

An informational  video on the CL-415 was screened followed by a lively question and answer session. As the only purpose-built water scooping aircraft of its size the CL-415 can scoop 1,620 gallons in 12 seconds.  My Topanga neighbors wanted to know everything about the aircraft.

A Topanga citizen’s group was organized to further research the CL-415. We learned that the aircraft’s productivity rate, number of gallons scooped per hour, made it an ideal firefighting  aircraft for extinguishing wildfires by Initial Attack, within minutes of a wildfire’s start.   Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman ‘s reaction to the Topanga-Malibu wildfire was swift and decisive. Chief Freeman said that he never again would allow such a wildfire to threaten the citizens of Los Angeles County.

Chief Freeman met with the management of the Service Aerien Gouvernmental de Quebec,  the Aerial Firefighting Service of Quebec Province, to explore a leasing agreement for two CL-415s from September 1st to December 31st  during the height of the so called “wildfire season” in Los Angeles County.

Quebec 1 and Quebec 2, the designation given to the two Quebec CL-415s, have been coming to Van Nuys Airport since 1994. Recently a five year extension to the lease agreement between Quebec and Los Angeles County was signed.

TWO  CL-415s

In 1996 I was invited to appear before a committee of the California Legislature in Sacramento which was taking testimony on the CL-415.  A bill had been introduced in the Legislature proposing the purchase of two CL-415s.  I remember appearing before committee Chair Debra Bowen, now California Secretary of State. My testimony essentially offered specific reasons why the CL-415 was an effective firefighting aircraft designed to fight wildfires and knock them down before they could burn out of control.

Also testifying before the committee was a representative of the California Department of Forestry (CDF—now CAL FIRE)) who said there were not enough water sources in California to operate the CL-415.  To the right of the CDF representative was a large National Geographic map of California. The Pacific Ocean was clearly a part of the map.  The CL-415 is designed to scoop out of the ocean and can do so if wave heights are less than six feet.


In 2001 I wrote an Op Ed piece for the Los Angleles TIMES calling for a lease-purchase of two CL-415s for Los Angeles County.  Rather than spend an average of $2.4 million to lease Quebec and Quebec 2 from the Service Aerien Gouvernmental de Quebec every wildfire season, would it not be more productive to enter into a lease-purchase agreement.  Los Angeles County had no plans to operate fixed-wing firefighting aircraft.


Italy’s  CIVIL PROTECTION  owns  nineteen (19)  CL-415s based at Rome’s Ciampino Airport.  France’s  SECURITE  CIVILE  owns and operates  twelve (12) CL-415s based at  Marignane near Marseille.  There are no permanently deployed CL-415s in this country.

 As a scooping aircraft the CL-415 can scoop from fresh water sources and the ocean. In Los Angeles County there are fourteen (14) water sources and the Pacific Ocean.

The helicopter fleet of LACoFD Air Operations, three Sikorsky S-70A Firehawks and six  Bell 412 helicopters works well with Quebec 1 and Quebec 2. During wildfire emergencies the aircraft can be seen flying over Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu on their way to scoop water from the Pacific ocean.


With the State of California experiencing a $16 billion deficit there are no funds to purchase two CL-415s for deployment in Southern California. 

A possible way to acquire and operate two additional CL-415s would be a Public Private Partnership. The capital for the purchase of two CL-415s would be provided by a 501 ( c) (3) non-profit Foundation. A number of Southern California corporations and high-net worth individuals would contribute to the creation of a non-profit Foundation.  Los Angeles County is currently the only county which leases two CL-415s

Southern California county Fire Agencies in need of  Intial Attack  CL-415 s could organize  a Consortium to share the cost of operating two CL-415s for the same period as Quebec 1 and Quebec 2.  Interested counties would include:

San Diego,  Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange,  Ventura, Kern and Santa Barbara.


U.S. Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management should consider the use of CL-415s as a valuable and effective component of contract firefighting aircraft . The most effective Aerial Firefighting fleet should include Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATS),  Large Air Tankers (LATs) now reduced to the smallest number in decades,  and Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs) Tanker 910 and Tanker 911 based at Southern California Logistics Airport,  Victorville,  CA.     See the CL-415 on Youtube


Editor’s note:  Tony Morris  co-founded Wildfire Research Network, and is greatly appreciated by Fireplanes.    POB 170189  Austin TX  78717       Fireplanes On YouTube    Fireplanes on Facebook
Fireplanes invites contributions and expert OpEd articles across the spectrum of wildfire mitigation.
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