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Nighttime Firefighting Flights Approved, But Challenges Remain

Above: A fireline in the Cedar Fire makes its way down the hill near a Walmart October 27, 2003 near Lakeside in San Diego, California.

Aired 8/20/12 on KPBS News.

The ability to quickly squash a wildfire that breaks out near nightfall depends on having helicopters that can operate in the dark. What’s changed since 2003 when a small wildfire at dusk turned into the devastating Cedar fire?

Fighting fires from the air in the dark can be extremely dangerous, which is why fire agencies had a policy in 2003 that helicopters could not fight fires at night.

Jeff Bowman, former San Diego fire chief, said that’s how the Cedar Fire got out of hand.

“Had they had night flying vehicles in 2003,” Bowman said, “they probably would have contained that fire to its original five acre area.“

Instead it burned more than 200,000 acres and 15 people died.

Cpt. Julie Hutchinson of Cal Fire said her agency does not have night flying helicopters.

“Our helicopters, the entire fleet, are Vietnam area Huey helicopters,” she said, “and they do not have the instrumentation, multiple engines, staffing that would be needed for night flying, so we do not have the capabilities.”

The U.S. Forest Service that manages the Cleveland National Forest didn’t have any night flying helicopters either, after a deadly accident between two helicopters in the 1970s.

But last week they announced they’ll acquire one next year in for the Angeles National Forest.

Brian Fennessy of San Diego city’s Fire Rescue Department said the extra investment by the Forest Service is move in the right direction.

“The benefit to the San Diego region is that there will be another helicopter available at night to support fires on the Cleveland National Forest,“ said Fennessy.

Fennesy said the City of San Diego’s two helicopters are also equipped to fight fires at night. Since 2008 they have had agreements with Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service to mobilize under certain conditions at night.

However Cal Fire will not call on military helicopters after dark because they use dangling “bambi” buckets rather than fixed water tanks. And San Diego County Sheriff’s helicopters are also out for night operations because they do not have back up engines.

In contrast, LA, Orange and Kern Counties all have helicopters equipped to fly at night. San Diego has cooperative agreement with them.

However, Cal Fire said they will only call on pilots who are familiar with the terrain to mobilize in San Diego’s mountainous backcountry, should a fire break out after nightfall.

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