How do you fight wildfires at night? These crews are training to battle blazes in California

15 July 2019

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USA – A helicopter flew toward a Mount Pinos trailhead, flashing lights cutting through the night sky and the whir of its blades breaking the quiet.

On the ground, firefighters waited in the dark with a hose. In a matter of seconds, they would load the helicopter’s belly with a few hundred gallons of water before it headed back toward flames in the mountains.

Helicopters landed and took off from the spot in the Los Padres National Forest one after another late Thursday night. But this time, the fire wasn’t real and the flames were just glow sticks.

The drill targeted night missions – a practice some say could save homes, lives and money spent to fight fires.

Midafternoon, when it’s hottest and the sun is bright, flames will more likely outpace fire resources, said Lyndsay Alarcon, a U.S. Forest Service helitack superintendent.

When the sun goes down, temperatures drop and humidity levels tick up, giving firefighters a better chance of gaining the upper hand.

“If we can continue fire suppression efforts into the evening hours, we have a higher probability of keeping fires small,” Alarcon said.

Night-flying helicopters aren’t rare or new to Southern California fire departments. But they are less common outside of the area, and in the Forest Service, there’s just one.

The agency started using Helicopter 531 in Southern California forests in 2013. It was the first time they had flown night missions in nearly three decades.

The practice stopped in the 1980s after a crash. Then, after the deadly Station Fire in Los Angeles County, agency officials said they would add a helicopter and crew with night-flying capabilities.

Six years later, it’s still the only one.

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