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Forest Service considers lifting ban on aerial firefighting at night

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The U.S. Forest Service won’t deploy night-flying aircraft to fight fires before the end of Southern California’s traditional fire season.

The Forest Service has maintained a ban on fighting fires by air after dark since a helicopter crash back in 1977. Critics say that if the agency had allowed water-tanker planes in the air after dark, that equipment might have stopped last summer’s deadly Station Fire much sooner.

At a U.S. Senate hearing, Forest Service officials said they’re reconsidering the ban on night time aerial firefighting. The problem is that the Service doesn’t have the technology to do it. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of Burbank says they "no longer have the night time flying goggles or the equipment in the helicopter to be able to use them."

Schiff was invited by his California colleague Senator Dianne Feinstein to join senators who questioned the Forest Service’s night time ban. Schiff says the Service is considering two options.

"One is to acquire the capability in house. Another is to work with some of their cooperators — which is what they call L.A. County, L.A. City, that already have the capacity. Whether they should basically contract with them."

The problem is that local governments have their own equipment challenges. Last summer, a Los Angeles County helicopter was in the air, fighting the Station Fire after dark until a medical emergency diverted the chopper from the fire scene.

If the Forest Service lifts its ban, the earliest it could have aircraft ready to fly at night would be November, well into the Southland’s wildfire season.