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San Diego Sheriff's firefighting pilots ready for anything this season

Helicopters have long been part of San Diego county's firefighting force. But often the first choppers flying in are not from a fire department.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s Aerial Support To Regional Enforcement Agencies (ASTREA) unit plays a unique role in fire suppression and rescue operations for Cal Fire - San Diego County Fire Department.

ASTREA's seven helicopters operate out of Gillespie Field in El Cajon, and fly about 2,000 emergency calls every year.

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"It’s been extremely successful. It’s the only one like it where you have the fire side of the house meeting with the law enforcement side of the house for this mission, and thus far it’s been a raving success," Sgt. Scott Bligh told KPBS.

Bligh is one of the fire pilots with ASTREA. He has been flying missions for about 20 years.

Wednesday morning started off with a fire weather briefing for the ASTREA pilots and Cal Fire San Diego crew. Then they headed off for some training with some new harnesses for rescues. The ASTREA helicopter is the only one that does hoisting rescues in the county for Cal Fire.

The ASTREA unit is a critical asset when it comes to fighting fires, because their helicopters stay within county lines, and they are often the first on scene.

"We send a full aerial and ground response to it [a fire], just in case. We never know, especially with some of the winds and the low humidities that we have and high temperature, and we are going to be there for it in case it does run," said Bligh.

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Becoming a fire pilot for ASTREA requires at least 2,000 helicopter hours. The pilots deal with conditions and hazards that a standard pilot is not prepared to handle.

"The smoke, the power lines, the trees, the snags, the terrain and the winds can be absolutely hellacious," Bligh said. "But we’re not going to push it to the point where we’re going to have that mishap. We’re going to understand what our limitations are, and what the limitations of the aircraft are, and go up until that point."

Bligh said the missions that stay with him are the ones that involve children, like when he was on a fire a few years back in North County. "I saw a bunch of children’s toys in the backyard, so I knew, you know, that kids are living at that house, and we shifted our mission to save that particular house," said Bligh. "Our efforts saved that house, so it was pretty satisfying knowing that those kids got to go back to their house."

He said in the 20 years he’s been fighting fires with the ASTREA unit, he's learned to be ready for anything. "You can send me all the weather reports you want and tell me it’s going to be horrible or it’s going to be great, and it could be 180 degrees out from what we plan on. So we’re always going to be ready to do what comes our way."

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