Friday, December 15, 2017

Why does San Diego only have two helicopters to do night drops?

RAMONA, Calif. (NEWS 8) -- When the Lilac fire broke out one week ago, more than a dozen planes and helicopters made water and fire retardant drops during the day.

But once the sun went down only two helicopters continued to drop at night.  Those choppers fly with the City of San Diego fire department.

“Cal Fire does not make night drops anywhere in the state with their aircraft. Our aircraft are not flying at night,” said Cal Fire’s chief of air operations in Ramona, Burke Kremensky.

Part of the reason is safety related.

“Night drops are a much greater risk and danger.  You're flying in low, poor visibility using night vision goggles.  It's almost like looking through two toilet paper tubes,” said Chief Kremensky.

During the daytime hours of the Lilac Fire, 12 helicopters and four fixed-wing airplanes were in formation as the flames destroyed homes.

These daylight operations are supervised by Cal Fire using a spotter plane flying above the formation, which can include helicopters from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, local military, the City of San Diego or the U.S. Forest Service.

Night drops require twin-engine helicopters, said Kremensky, like the two choppers owned by the City of San Diego.

The helicopters also must be equipped to land and fill up with water, as opposed to obtaining water from a pond or lake while on the fly.

Using a basket or hose to scoop up water from a pond surrounded by power lines is simply too dangerous at night, Kremensky said.

Still, the City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department is able to pull off night drops on its own without the help of Cal Fire.

When the sun sets, the Cal Fire supervisor lands.  Then, the two city fire choppers are able to fly at night without a supervisor spotting from above.

The Sheriff's department has three helicopters but they are single engine and can't be used for water drops at night.

Local military helicopters also are not equipped to make night drops in state jurisdiction while under the control of Cal Fire.

The same goes for SDG&E’s Skycrane chopper; no night drops allowed.

By comparison, Los Angeles County has eight helicopters that can drop at night.

The City of Los Angeles has five.

Orange County has four.

Kern County has two.

Santa Barbara County has one.

Cal Fire recently announced it will purchase 12 brand new Firehawk choppers – at a cost of $20 million each – and train its pilots to do night drops. But that will take time.

“Realistically we're looking at approximately five years for those helicopters to be put out,” said Kremensky, the Cal Fire chief.

The US Forest Service has one helicopter that can make night drops but it was being used up in the Los Angeles area because that’s where the chopper is based.

Cal Fire says night drop helicopters can also be called in from other counties.  That did not happen during the Lilac Fire.

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