SAN DIEGO Nighttime water-dropping helicopters are credited with saving hundreds of homes that stood in the path of the ferocious Griffith Park fire that scorched the bone-dry, brush-covered hills of Los Angeles earlier this year.
San Diego Fire-Rescue Department’s Copter One dropped water over Hoyt Park in Scripps Ranch during a nighttime training mission earlier this year.
But dropping water at night is dangerous and fraught with hazards, and only three municipal agencies in the nation allow their firefighters to battle flames from the air in the dark.
The city and county of Los Angeles are two of them.
San Diego is the third.
When asked what’s the biggest difference between the city’s firefighting capabilities now and what it had in October 2003, when the region suffered through its worst wildfires in history, Jeff Carle, assistant chief for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, answered, Now we can fly at night.
The city of San Diego’s $4 million 212 Bell HP twin engine helicopter, aka Copter One, is an important tool for a city facing what officials are calling the worst fire conditions in the state in almost a century.
The helicopter, which is stationed at Montgomery Field and staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, can strategically dump 375 gallons of water onto a blaze in just one pass. That makes it roughly equivalent to five engines on the ground, said Chief Brian Fennessy, who developed the city’s air operations program and oversees it.
The benefits During the daytime, the crew can fill the copter’s water tanks in 17 seconds by dipping a high-speed hydraulic snorkel hose into a water source as it hovers above.
At night, fire crews on the ground meet the copter at designated spots around the county where they can fill the aircraft’s tanks from hydrants in less than 90 seconds.
The helicopter can carry 14 firefighters to a fire line, and has a powerful hoist used for rescues and transporting injured patients.
It is also equipped with state-of-the-art computer systems and equipment, including the same night-vision goggles used by the U.S. military in war zones, Fennessy said.
The goggles and onboard infared camera enable the crew to see hazards they could not ordinarily see in the dark, and the view from the air gives firefighters a clearer picture of a blaze, especially in the county’s many canyons.
The incident commander (on the ground) is virtually blind, said Capt. Tom Stephenson, Copter One’s crew chief. The aerial source looks at the big picture and can see exactly what the potential is, what’s burning, the number of resources that should be moved.
The helicopter crew can also capture and relay images of the fire directly to firefighters on the ground.
We can show the incident commander exactly what’s burning, he said.
In recent months, night water drops were used to help extinguish a spate of arson fires in the San Luis Rey riverbed in Oceanside. The fires burned hot and fast through thick vegetation, making it impossible for strike teams and hand crews to get to them.
There were a lot of people ready to engage the fire, but it was burning so aggressively that the crews would not come off the roads and into the riverbeds, Fennessy said. These guys dropped water on it for close (to) two hours before knocking it down to a point where the crews felt comfortable going down into the river and engaging the fire.
The risks But night flying comes with innumerable dangers. You’ve got wires; you’ve got potentially other aircraft; you’ve got signs you’ve got all this stuff that is difficult to see at night, Fennessy said.
Birds, dirt that kicks up, lights, wires strung to hang decorations, fences, as well as flying debris can all prove perilous to helicopter crews, especially because they sometimes need to drop as low as 50 feet from the ground to make sure the water hits its target.
Such hazards have other agencies moving cautiously when it comes to lifting their bans on night flying.
In San Diego County, neither the Sheriff’s Department nor the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, now known as Cal Fire, make night drops.
Cal Fire battalion chief Ray Chaney, the agency’s air boss for San Diego County, said Cal Fire is just in its infancy in developing a nighttime aerial firefighting program.
It’s a very high-risk operation, he said. Most fire departments . . . just don’t do on a daily basis. They’ll tell you there has to be some kind of extreme measure for them to go out and engage in that.
Even using the special goggles, pilots need to know an area intimately to avoid hazards at night and unlike crews for local fire departments, Cal Fire pilots may find themselves flying anywhere in California, Chaney said.
When we have pilots come down here, we give them briefings on particular areas not to fly in, hazardous areas, he said, but to know where every hazard is in a particular city or county is near-impossible.
The potential for hitting a wire, even on night-vision goggles, is fairly high if you don’t know where that wire is.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Douglas, a veteran helicopter pilot with some 1,600 hours of flying time on night goggles, said there are plenty of other potentially lethal obstructions pilots have to avoid at night.
You can’t see burned trees; they’re just very dull little sticks sticking up, Douglas said. You don’t have very good depth perception, so you could be a lot lower than you think you are.
The goggles also greatly narrow a pilot’s vision, he said.
You have a 40-degree field of view, Douglas said. It’s like looking through two toilet paper tubes. You’re really having to scan quite a bit to make sure something isn’t sneaking up on you. Now, I’m distracted from my mission, which is to drop water on fire.
Douglas said night water drops are something the Sheriff’s Department will adopt but said it will take some time.
Stephenson and Fennessy say they hope other agencies will eventually decide to use copters on nighttime fires, saying the value can’t be understated.
We’re just happy we’ve got the ability to do it, Stephenson said, and we feel we’ve got something that can certainly help the citizens around here.