USA–– After being criticized for not using aerial night helicopter flights to fight the devastating Station Fire in 2009, three weeks ago the U.S. Forest Service announced it would do so for future fires, signing agreements with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to use county-trained helicopter pilots who fly at night.
But when the Williams Fire erupted in the Angeles National Forest on Sept. 2 and quickly spread into a 4,180-acre blaze, the federal agency in charge of fighting the fire once again chose not to call in night-flying helicopters as part of its air attack.
“They looked at that the first night when there were structures threatened and determined they didn’t need that,” said Mark Nunez, deputy incident commander on the fire for the Forest Service.
Critics of the Forest Service’s response to the Station Fire, which burned more than 160,000 acres, destroyed 89 homes and killed two L.A. County firefighters are questioning why the Forest Service didn’t call on L.A. County Fire to fly night runs on this most recent blaze.
“I think it would’ve made a lot of sense from a public relations standpoint to see the county do that on this fire, because they didn’t do it on the Station Fire,” said Mike Rogers, a retired fire service officer and one-time forest supervisor of the Angeles National Forest with the U.S. Forest Service.
A nighttime drop is the best time to put out a fire, he said.
“There is an advantage (to nighttime water drops). Fires tend to lay down as the sun sets. The fire is much easier to drop on at night. There is not that much of a flaming front. You can make big gains,” Rogers said.
Keeping helicopters dropping water on a wildfire 24 hours a day, means fire suppression resources are not interrupted, other experts said.
“You aren’t going to lose resources because it is nighttime,” said Battalion Chief Mark Savage, with L.A. County Fire.
Unlike the U.S. Forest Service, L.A. County fire routinely keeps helicopters flying at night if fire conditions call for it, Savage said. On July 3, night-flying helicopters helped put out a stubborn grass blaze near Palmdale, he said.
“We’ve been using our helicopters at night for several years. I remember being at the Old Topanga Fire in 1993 and we were having our helicopters dropping at night,” he said.
The Williams Fire forced the evacuation of about 1,100 permanent forest residents and overnight campers, many from Camp Williams and others from a rehabilitation facility along the East Fork, a popular recreation area, according to county fire officials. Thousands of other day hikers and picnickers were also evacuated from San Gabriel Canyon.
The canyon was closed to the public during Labor Day, the busiest day of the year for recreation. It remained closed to the public throughout this weekend.
Still, despite water-dropping helicopters being grounded at night, the Forest Service’s approach to the Williams Fire seemed to be effected. Less than a week after it started, firefighters had it nearly three-quarters contained.
No structures were burned and only minor injuries to about eight firefighters were reported.
Nunez said the success is due in large part to the use of water and retardant-dropping air tankers and helicopters, including the massive DC-10 air tanker that can drop up to 12,000 gallons of retardant or water per flight.
The combination of daytime air attacks – as many as 10 helicopters fighting the chaparral and conifer blaze each day – with dozens of round-the-clock hand crews is slowly containing the season’s first local wildfire.
The agency expects full containment by Thursday.
When asked if the Forest Service planned on calling in night-flying helicopters from county fire any time to contain the Williams Fire, Nunez last week indicated probably not.
Rogers said he suspects the reason is to save on costs charged by the county.
Nunez said the decision was based on the fire behavior and also on safety.
“It could’ve helped. That first day, the fire took off quickly,” Rogers said. “With all that fire line, we are heading into Santa Ana season. All it takes is high pressure to build and that can happen in 24 hours.”
In mid-August, after receiving pressure over the past three years from Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, the U.S. Forest Service announced it would develop its own night-flying capabilities. Tom Harbour, the agency’s national director of fire and aviation management, said the move will increase the availability to attack fires by 40 percent.
But those capabilities won’t be ready until next year, Schiff said.
“The Forest Service cannot use aircraft at night today, but the USFS is beginning to retrofit their craft and train pilots to fly at night. The retrofitting will take a while,” he wrote in an e-mail.
The Forest Service will not have its own night-flying helicopter in the Angeles until “sometime next year,” according to Schiff. But it can call in night-flying helicopter pilots from the county, the congressman reiterated.
L.A. County’s helicopter pilots fly both day and night flights. There is no need to call in a special flight force, Savage said.
“If the request would’ve been made, I don’t see any reason why we would not have been sent,” Savage said.