Saturday, June 05, 2021

New Cal Fire helicopter already showing its chops

The helicopter and two air tankers respond to wildfires and rescues in Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Cal Fire pilot Matthew Miller sits in the cockpit of the new Copter 301, a Sikorsky S70i Fire Hawk, during a tour at Ryan Air Attack Base in Hemet on Friday, June 4, 2021.

It took only one wildfire for Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department’s new Sikorsky S70i helicopter to demonstrate its value to pilot Matthew Miller.

Swooping in on the nascent Coyote fire south of Banning on June 2, Miller flipped a switch that opened one of the doors of his aircraft’s 1,000-gallon water tank, dropping half the load on the flames. Soon after, he let loose with the remaining 500 gallons on another hot spot. The fire’s spread was stopped at 75 acres.

Had Miller been piloting one of Cal Fire’s Vietnam-era Super Hueys, he would have had to drop all his water at once and spend 10 minutes away from the battle to reload.

“That fire might have been off to the races,” Miller said.

On Friday, June 4, at Hemet-Ryan  Air Attack Base, Cal Fire put on display one of the 12 Sikorsky Fire Hawks it had built at a cost of $26 million each to replace an equal number of Hueys. Those Sikorskys have been deployed statewide as the danger from wildfires increases.

“We know fire season is a daily threat,” said Riverside County Supervisor Chuck Washington, observing the new and improved chopper

The helicopter and two air tankers at the Hemet base respond to fires and rescues in Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Cal Fire meteorologists expect cooler conditions for the next month, until summer brings its usual scorching temperatures and low humidity.

“The last eight years, we said ‘That’s the worst fire season,’ but the year always ups itself,” said Capt. Richard Cordova, a Cal Fire spokesman. “Fires are moving quicker and at a more dangerous rate.”

Besides age, the Sikorskys’ advantages over the Hueys are numerous. They fly faster and farther, can carry more people and more water (1,000 gallons vs. 300) and can drop 1,000, 500 or 250 gallons at a time. They have two engines instead of one and can fly if one gives out, a feature not lost on Miller.

“To me, the big boast with this is being able to get these guys home safely,” Miller said, motioning to other firefighters on the tarmac.

Although Miller has been a Cal Fire pilot for less than two years, he and the Sikorsky — “My work wife,” said Miller, who is engaged — have a close relationship.

Miller, 43, grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and graduated from the Air Force Academy. He flew combat and search and rescue missions for 14 years, evacuating troops while coming under gunfire and plucking people off rooftops after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the tsunami in Japan in 2011.

Miller worked as an airline pilot and flies in the Navy Reserves. Then he got the opportunity to join Cal Fire.

“The desire to serve the community has always been there,” he said. “It was a no-brainer.”

Miller and Copter 301 managed to make it through Friday’s event without having to leave for a fire. But it was just a matter of time. Cal Fire went to full seasonal staffing on Monday, Cordova said.

This year, for the second year in a row, a paid hand crew of 40 new firefighters will work out of Hemet-Ryan, helping to make up for the loss of inmate hand crew members who are tasked with building fire breaks and assisting during other disasters. Where once there were 4,000 available inmates statewide, now there are about 2,000 because of early releases due to COVID-19 and federally imposed capacity limits, Cordova said.

Cal Fire’s Riverside Unit still has crews at its Oak Glen, Norco and Bautista conservation camps, but there are fewer of them and only about 12 people per crew, down from the usual 15, Cordova said. Cal Fire hopes to add more professional hand crews, Cordova said.

For now, he said, “You’re going to see us spread kind of thin because of the shortage of inmates.”

Cordova encouraged residents to clear brush around their homes to give firefighters a realistic opportunity to save their property.

Information on making an evacuation plan can be found at

1 comment:

  1. Awesome new birds! Get ready to use them boys and girls, because the geniuses running California continue to refuse to do preventative underbrush burning - might upset the envirowackos more concerned about saving the big horned jackalope than a human being's life.