Forest officials seek area helitanker

Forest officials seek area helitanker

8January 2005


Reno-Tahoe fire officials this summer want to obtain a uniquely equipped helicopter capable of sucking 2,500 gallons of water from a shallow pond or stream in less than a minute – a watery cargo that quickly can be used to douse a wildfire.

Mike Dondero, fire management officer for Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, has requested that the U.S. Forest Service base a specially outfitted Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter – a so-called helitanker – in the immediate area.

“To keep a small fire small, it’s probably the best tool you can have,” Dondero said.

The effort comes in the wake of Northern Nevada’s most destructive wildfire season in modern history and as officials plan and budget for the coming fire season, five or six months from now.

With many of the nation’s large, multiengine firefighting air tankers grounded last year due to safety concerns, officials had to get creative to make up for the loss. Across the national and locally, that meant an increased use of smaller single-engine air tankers.

But Dondero and colleagues hope the addition of a helitanker can help guarantee, as put by District Ranger Gary Schiff, “rapid, massive, initial attack” against a fire.

Skycranes have been used to fight fire for many years, but this model has special benefits.

Most Skycranes use a large bucket dangled by a cable and must find a relatively deep-water source to refill the bucket while fighting fire – a process that can significantly add to the time between water drops.

The Sikorsky Skycrane uses a specially designed “snorkel” that can dip into a pond or stream as shallow as 18 inches. In only 45 seconds, it can fill a 2,500-gallon water tank directly attached to the helicopter’s frame.

That could come in particularly handy in Northern Nevada, where many water bodies are very shallow, Dondero said.

“Our water sources are so few and far between,” Dondero said, adding that the helicopter’s water drops also are more accurate than those made by a bucket hanging from a line.

The helitanker also has the capability of dumping the same type of slurry fire retardant used by propeller-driven air tankers, as well as a firefighting foam.

Dondero and colleagues saw the helicopter in action last summer during the destructive Waterfall Fire, which burned 17 homes in Carson City.

A helicopter owned by Oregon-based Erickson Air-Crane, based in Utah and under contract by the Forest Service, was flown in to help fight the blaze.

“It was dumping water as fast as it could. For every one (bucket) load, it could probably put four loads on the fire,” Dondero said. “It probably saved a lot of houses.”

In an area with so many communities at risk from wildfire and with such a high-profile national treasure as the Lake Tahoe Basin also in danger, basing of a helitanker in the region seems logical, Schiff said.

“It would appear the values at risk easily warrant the pre-positioning of one of these aircraft here,” Schiff said. “This is a piece of equipment that has got the same capability as an air tanker.”

Local fire districts, including the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District and the East Fork Fire and Paramedic District, are joining in asking the government to approve basing a helitanker locally.

“This would be very effective for this region here,” said North Tahoe Fire Chief Jim Linardos. “It would be a great regional resource, and we could all use it.”

Tod Carlini, chief of the fire district serving the Minden-Gardnerville area, agreed.

“It could make the difference,” Carlini said. “It could give us a little bit of a head start to get some serious firefighting capacity on a fire.”


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