USA — California Democrats yesterday pushed the Forest Service to redevelop the capacity to operate firefighting aircraft at night.
The service stopped training pilots to fly at night in the 1980s after a series of fatal crashes in the late 1970s, including a collision between a L.A. County helicopter and a Forest Service helicopter in 1977. Instead, the Forest Service depends on county governments and other partners for its overnight air needs.
The lack of federal night flights has been under scrutiny since the fatal “Station Fire” lit up Angeles National Forest in Southern California last August.
On Aug. 26, 2009, federal and county firefighters were working to contain the blaze shortly after it was discovered. As the sun set, Los Angeles County dispatched one of its night-flying helicopters, but the aircraft completed only a few runs before being diverted to perform a medical evacuation. The Forest Service requested more air support but none was available until 9 a.m. the next morning.
By then, hotspots were blocking the road firefighters had been using to reach the fire and the initial attempt to contain the blaze had failed.
The Station Fire burned for nearly two more months, scorching more than 160,000 acres and killing two Los Angeles County firefighters.
“No one, no fire chief, no firefighter, resident or reporter can provide definitive evidence that anything would have made a difference in the outcome,” the L.A. County Fire Department wrote in a post-fire review. “Still, we must look hard at every action. We must question and we must make changes where we can.”
Included in those changes could be equipping Forest Service personnel to fly firefighting missions at night, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee yesterday during a hearing on federal wildfire efforts.
Dropping water and flame retardants from aircraft is an important way to keep small fires from escalating, and new technologies have made night flying safer than it was in the 1980s, Schiff said.
“Night-time flights are not a silver bullet, but they can significantly improve our ability to effectively fight fires near urban areas,” Schiff said. “And by helping reduce the number of catastrophic fires, they may save lives and pay for themselves.”
The Forest Service is studying a return to night flying and should have results by fall, agency chief Tom Tidwell told the subcommittee yesterday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, said aerial operations would be critical to addressing the larger, more frequent and more expensive wildfires her state could face because of global warming.
“Candidly, I think it’s the only option,” Feinstein said.
Along with looking into night flying, the Forest Service and Interior Department are planning to focus their efforts on forests near urban centers. The service intends to conduct timber thinning to cut fire risks on 2.3 million acres of forest, said Mike Pool, deputy director of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.
Feinstein said her subcommittee is preparing a budget that will provide federal agencies with the tools they need but that the improved budget will come with expectations attached.
“The expectation is that these fires will be attacked,” she said. “If there’s another big fire and we can’t move assets quickly into place, it’ll be a day to be reckoned with.”