US Forest Service wlll hit the sky at night to fight fires

A firefighting helicopter drops water on a fire in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., in 2009.
A firefighting helicopter drops water on a fire in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., in 2009.
AP Photo/Gus Ruelas

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The U.S. Forest Service will resume flying helicopters at night to fight wildfires in Southern California beginning next year, the agency's firefighting chief said Thursday.

The Forest Service manages firefighting on federal lands including the national forests. It quit using helicopters for water-dropping flights at night in 1983 because of the expense and limited effectiveness of the smaller aircraft then in use.

The decision to resume night flights comes in response to complaints from people who lost homes and businesses in the 2009 Station Fire, and ensuing pressure from elected officials. Critics often point to the first night of the fire as a pivotal point in what became a devastating event that, over 51 days, burned more than 160,000 acres, destroyed 89 homes and took the lives of two fire firefighters in the Angeles National Forest. he burn area included Big Tujunga Canyon and mountain areas north of Pasadena to Sierra Madre.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena ) and Buck McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) who represent the burn area, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) were among those pressing the Forest Service to act.

"They were certainly speaking for their constituents, and we're aware of that, but this really is the result of a careful amount of analysis," said Tom Harbour, national director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service.

In a statement, Feinstein called it “an overdue and welcome change.” Schiff said his constituents will never know for certain if night flights could have put out the Station Fire earlier.

The first night-flying helicopter will be stationed in the Angeles National Forest, but over time might be made available to fight fires in the Los Padres, Cleveland and San Bernardino National Forests, Harbour said. Any expansion of the helicopter's operating area can be made only when the pilots are familiar with the area.

"This is low-level flying, and so we'll start on the Angeles, but as quickly as those pilots become proficient they will move to other places. Our goal is that this one helicopter will be able to respond there in Southern California." Harbour added that the agency plans to expand the fleet.

The Forest Service has long been aided in nighttime helicopter firefighting by the counties of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego, which have their own chopper fleets. Adding this helicopter means the Forest Service can respond quicker on its own, although mutual aid from the neighboring fire agencies will continue, Harbour said.

Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Capt. Mark Savage said his agency welcomed the added night capacity of Forest Service helicopters. Before the Station Fire, the county's water-dropping helicopters would respond only to night fires in the national forest when structures were threatened. That policy changed after the Station Fire, and the Forest Service is able to request night water drops from the county helicopters in areas that do not have buildings in danger of burning.

Flights will begin by June 2013, he said.