Night firefighting from the air develops slowly

Night firefighting from the air develops slowly

14 October 2008

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USA — Five years after local officials were infuriated by a decision to ground aircraft at sunset rather than attack California’s largest wildfire in its infancy, the region is moving —- albeit slowly —- to battle blazes from the air after dark.

State fire officials said helicopters did not fly at night during this week’s San Diego County wildfires, largely because pilots were able to knock down flames with water and fire retardant during the day.

But the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, has opened the door to making drops at night over the backcountry areas it is responsible for protecting, including 1 million acres in San Diego County.

And the state agency gave the city of San Diego the green light in September to fly its two twin-engine firefighting helicopters over those areas, in the event another inferno like those of 2003 and 2007 breaks out.

“CalFire has agreed to allow night flying in state responsibility areas if they determine that the equipment is safe,” said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents much of the backcountry, including Ramona. “This is a historic change in policy.”

While it is disappointing the state did not give a green light to the county because it does not consider its helicopters to be safe, Jacob said a future aircraft purchase, possibly with money from a November ballot measure, could put the county in the night firefighting business.

For now, said sheriff’s Lt. Phil Brust, county helicopters will focus on flames during daylight hours.

“During the day, we can do any mission that is asked of us,” Brust said. “But once the sun goes down, they (CalFire officials) are not comfortable flying in those helicopters.”

Brust said that typically a CalFire captain flies with a sheriff’s pilot.

The county sheriff helicopters are both single-engine Bell 205 models.

Division Chief Tom Humann, aviation safety officer for CalFire in Sacramento, said the state agency doesn’t consider single-engine helicopters safe because, if the engine goes out, the pilot has no choice but to bring the aircraft down.

In daylight, a pilot has a 180-degree range of view to rely on for spotting an emergency landing spot, he said. But at night, even with night-vision goggles, a pilot’s range is 40 degrees.

“It’s kind of like looking through a couple of toilet paper rolls,” Humann said.

And a pilot is much more likely to crash at night in a single-engine aircraft, he said.

When officials talk of flying at night, they are focusing on helicopters. Flying fixed-wing airplanes is considered unsafe, given the much higher speeds —- 140 mph compared with about 60 mph for a helicopter —- and the drop altitudes of 150 feet, Humann said.

“That’s not done in the industry, period, by anybody,” he said. “If you did that, you’d lose a lot of airplanes.”

Besides the county and city of San Diego, CalFire has been trying to get into the night-flying business. The state has 11 single-engine firefighting helicopters —- Bell 205s —- but no twin-engine aircraft.

Humann said the agency has been trying to change that ever since the disastrous fires of 2003 that torched three-quarters of a million acres across Southern California and 380,000 acres in San Diego County.

For example, this year’s preliminary budget included a proposal to buy 11 twin-engine helicopters.

“Unfortunately, it’s been shot down,” Humann said. “It’s always been in the draft budget in some form and never made the final cut.”

That wave of 2003 blazes spawned the most massive in state history, the 270,000-acre Cedar fire that started in the Cleveland National Forest just before sunset east of Ramona. That’s when CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service prevented helicopters from taking off to dump water when the Cedar blaze was a few acres in size.

Carlton Joseph, acting Cleveland National Forest fire chief, said the U.S. Forest Service uses contract aircraft to fight fires, and its contracts do not allow flying after dark.

But Joseph said the agency would allow the city of San Diego to bomb raging fires in the national forest at night, now that it is equipped for such attacks under an existing firefighting agreement with the city.

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