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Tue, May 22, 2007

California Firefighters Consider Night Helicopter Water Drops

Considered More Effective... But 1977 Collision Makes Decision Difficult

There are times in California's Los Angeles County when helicopter pilots are called upon to battle wildfires at night... and at least two agencies are now considering bringing night water drops to the Inland area.

"We've been working on it for the last year or two," Chief Mike Padilla said of The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection -- also known as Cal Fire -- study of how night water drops might be made by his statewide helicopter fleet, according to The Press-Enterprise.

"LA County Fire Department is probably the most experienced agency in night firefighting," Padilla said. "We're talking to them ... and assessing what we want to do."

Cal Fire currently has 11 Vietnam War-era military-surplus helicopters and preliminary evaluations may be made with one or two of those. But, a true full-scale program would require newer and specially equipped helicopters and would take at least three or four years to acquire and implement, Padilla said.

Cal Fire is responsible for fire protection on state lands and also serves as Riverside County's fire department.

Every fire season, one of San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department's 11 helicopters is assigned full-time to daylight firefighting duty under a contract with Cal Fire. Their 15 helicopter pilots and supervisors have been talking about making nighttime water drops.

"We have the ... ships, the night-vision goggles, the (water) buckets and pilots," Lt. Tom Hornsby said. "So from the policy decision to do it, it would take us two months (to develop guidelines and to train an initial group of pilots). But that would be hard-charging. And then we'd have only three or four pilots to drop water at night on goggles."

He estimates another nine months would be required to train the remaining pilots and emphasizes that no policy decision has been made yet for sheriff's pilots to do nighttime firefighting.

Then there's cost. Is the department willing to risk its pilots and spend $100,000 or more on equipment and training?  Hornsby said that question remains unanswered.

Officials agree the decision depends, in part, on whether the benefits are worth the risks to pilots, who would be flying low over unpredictable fires, surrounded by wires and other obstructions, and doing it all in the dark.

"The benefit of (night water drops) is: Fire isn't as intense at night so you can get a greater effect from your water dropping," said Chief Bill Smith of the Running Springs Fire Department in the San Bernardino Mountains.

How to make the drops and maintain the safety of the pilots is still the primary concern. In July 1977, two helicopters collided while preparing to land at a reloading point in the Angeles National Forest on a water-dropping mission. Both pilots were using night-vision goggles; one pilot perished, the other was critically injured.

"That pretty much put a damper on any night flying," recalled Smith, a US Forest Service retiree.

Forest Service spokeswoman Rose Davis said the agency no longer conducts night water drops and has no plans to resume them. One of the helicopters in the 1977 crash was a USFS helicopter.

The other helicopter was operated by LA County Fire Department. Its crews put night-vision goggles down then and didn't pick them up again until 2001 -- and then primarily for nighttime rescue missions.

"It took us from 2001 to 2005 flying goggles in our area until we felt comfortable doing night firefighting," recalled Tom Short, senior pilot for LA County Fire Department. "We did not just jump into this."

Night-vision goggles work by amplifying existing light, from starlight to streetlights. Pilots say they use the goggles on nearly every night firefighting flight, but not necessarily during a water drop.

"I'll flip the goggles up because I have enough light around the fire to see," Short said. "It's when I'm going to and from my water source that I'll use the goggles."

It's important for pilots to be familiar with an area in daylight before they attempt night drops there, Short said. Ponds, lakes and other water sources are often in an unlighted location with wires nearby that are difficult, even impossible, to see from the air even during the day.
For that reason, it's especially reasonable for Cal Fire to proceed slowly and cautiously, he said.

"I think it's a very wise thing (for Cal Fire) to be wary ... because of the large area in which their pilots respond. It's impossible to have (detailed) knowledge of the whole state," said Short, who had flown in Los Angeles County for about 10 years before he attempted water drops there with night-vision goggles.

As can be expected, pilots with military flight experience tend to be the most comfortable with the idea of nighttime water drops.

"I've got 300 or 400 hours in night-vision goggles ... with the military," said Padilla, Cal Fire's top-ranking aviation official. "The last time I flew them was in Bosnia in '99."

One of his current staff officers wore goggles in the Marine Corps and has flown Marine One, the president's helicopter. The sheriff's helicopter unit has three former military pilots who have become the agency's night-vision goggle instructors.

Six of the San Bernardino County sheriff department's newest helicopters are equipped to make night water drops. Its pilots have been using the goggles since last year to fly at night on patrols.

It takes time for a pilot to acclimate to night-vision goggles. So, sheriff pilots use them on flights over urban areas then progress to more difficult topographical areas. Remote desert areas are particularly dark and mountainous terrains are especially hazardous.

"We may add (rescue) hoist operations as the next mission," said Hornsby. "And after that, firefighting -- or maybe not."

(Some photos courtesy California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection)



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