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Fighting Fire from the Air: Are We Better Protected?

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

(Photo: Helicopter Rescue Medic Perry Esquer, stands with Copter One, currently  the City of San Diego's only fire rescue helicopter. Alison St John/KPBS)

Six months after the devastating wild fires in San Diego County, KPBS launches a series to look at where we are now, and whether we’re better prepared for the next fire season.

The city has committed to leasing a new helicopter, and this week two County Supervisors suggested leasing air tankers during the peak fire season. But last year valuable time was lost when bureaucratic hurdles prevented military aircraft from mobilizing to battle the flames. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more on what’s changed and what hasn’t, in the effort to use airpower more effectively next time.

Down at Montgomery Field, helicopter rescue medic Perry Esquer watches the City of San Diego's "Copter One" hovering over the tarmac during a training exercise …

Esquer: Full-time, we have three medium type helicopters like this, one from the city, and two from the sheriff's office, and seasonally we have a forth coming from the Forest Service.

St John: And you've got one more arriving soon?

Esquer: And we have one hopefully arriving in August or September.

The city's decision to get a second fire rescue helicopter by the fall is one of the few bright spots on the fire fighting landscape. Esquer says helicopters are valuable because they can get to the scene of a fire so fast. He was aboard Copter One in the early hours of the Harris Fire last year.

Esquer: Going down to the Harris fires, I've never seen anything like it, the smoke was literally going sideways, because the wind was amazing, it was frightening.

Flying over a fire zone is dangerous, Esquer says. That's why Cal Fire wouldn't let military helicopters over their fire area without so-called "spotters" in the cockpit to help guide the pilot. Unfortunately most of the 40 trained spotters statewide were tied up fighting fire on the ground, which meant a number of military helicopters were left sitting on the tarmac as the flames spread.

Esquer is one of 28 new spotters being trained by Cal Fire. He says he questions the need for one spotter per aircraft, but he is glad Cal Fire is also conducting more training exercises with military pilots this year.

Esquer: There are some times when the pilots may not know the fire speak, they may not know the left flank from the right flank, the jargon that we use there's no doubt they can fly the aircraft, it's just, can they integrate into a fire scene safely.

Navy pilots were already training with Cal Fire and San Diego pilots last year, but the Marines were out of the loop. This spring they've joined in.

  080421-milichopper-asj.jpg
Captain Mike Murphy at Camp Pendleton  with a CH 46  Sea Knight helicopter. Alison St John/KPBS
Up at Camp Pendleton, Captain Mike Myers leads a training quadroon of 18 heavy duty military helicopters

Myers: We're looking at a CH 46 Echo Sea Knight , it's our medium lift helicopter for the Marine Corps, used quite often overseas in Iraq and it's also the aircraft that we used in the last few weeks for fire fighter training with Cal Fire. 

Myers says the Marines now store bambi buckets, used to do water drops, near the helicopters hangars so they can be deployed to fight fires faster. He says the hands-on training with Cal Fire was useful.

Myers: We had Cal fire overhead, we had Cal Fire and Pendleton representatives in the aircraft with us to help our crew chiefs understand how to hook up the bambi bucket, when to drop in order to make it on target so there was a lot of learning, a lot of training going on .

Cal Fire's Deputy Director for Fire Protection, Ken McLean says his agency has a new Operating Procedure with the Military. 

McLean:  I think this is a big step forward in coordinating with the Marines and utilizing their assets.

McLean says the new plan is to find out what air power the military has available as soon as a fire starts, instead of waiting till it's out of control. However he says the policy requiring one spotter per aircraft hasn't changed. And nor has Cal Fire's policy that grounds firefighting aircraft as soon as it gets dark

Douglas: We don't fire fires at night 

That's Sergeant Dave Douglas who's in charge of San Diego County Sheriff's two fire fighting helicopters. Douglas say because Cal Fire is in charge of fighting fires in unincorporated areas, the sheriff has to follow their rules.

Douglas: There's some discussion about maybe moving towards fighting fires at night but that's a few years down the road. They've got to find the money to replace the helicopters that they operate in right now.

Cal Fire and the sheriff would have to either retrofit or get new helicopters to fight fire at night safely. For now, the city of San Diego's helicopters are the only ones that can mobilize to fight fires after dark, and they can only do so over city owned land.

City helicopter medic Perry Esquer says there are some signs of progress in planning air assaults on future fires, but there it'll take a lot more initiative to be truly ready.

Esquer:  We have to stack the deck on our side, we cannot just sit back and say I hope I hope I hope, we have to be on the offensive. 

Another coordinated training exercise with military pilots is planned for mid May.

Alison St John, KPBS News.

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