Today, Rep. Adam Schiff and Senator Dianne Feinstein announced the U.S. Forest Service now has available a specifically equipped helicopter to combat wildfires at night. Four years ago, during the Station Fire – the largest wildfire in Los Angeles county history – the potentially critical night flying tool was not available to the Forest Service. As a result, questions remain as to whether such a capability might have helped contain the fire on the critical first night of the fire. Due to a restriction put in place by the Forest Service in the 1970s following a tragic helicopter crash in the Angeles National Forest, the agency has not employed night flights, and instead, has relied upon other local agencies to supply these firefighting tools when available.
“We will never know for certain if night flying could have extinguished the Station Fire in those critical early hours, but adding this capability will give us a better chance in future wildfires to protect residents’ houses, precious natural resources and, most importantly, lives,” said Rep. Adam Schiff. “The restoration of this capability by the Forest Service – though long overdue – could not come at a more critical time, with one wildfire burning across Southern California and more expected throughout the summer. Also, sequestration will mean that 200,000 fewer acres are treated with hazardous fuel mitigation and will be even more vulnerable to fire”
After the Station Fire, Schiff and other legislators requested that Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the federal response. That report indicated that the use of night-flying aircraft may have allowed the Forest Service to suppress the Station Fire on the critical first night and concluded that the Forest Service both failed to use all potentially available aircraft early in the blaze and needed to develop a strategy for when night missions should be flown. In response to the report and Station Fire, the agency took steps to expand night flying, including the use of turbine-powered single-engine night-flying aircraft, including helicopters, which had previously been prohibited.
“With California suffering through a severe drought, this year’s wildfire season could be especially dangerous,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein. “That’s why I told Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell at a recent Senate hearing that he must make every firefighting resource available. Attacking wildfires at night from the air—when temperatures and winds are down and humidity is up—is an important tool, so resumption of Forest Service flights comes not a moment too soon. As California grows hotter and dryer, we must make every effort to quickly contain wildfires, and nighttime aerial firefighting is a big part of that effort.”
Other agencies, including Los Angeles City and County fire departments, and agencies in San Diego, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Kern Counties, have employed night flying tactics to great success and routinely use aircraft to douse flames at night, including the use of helicopters and planes.
“The re-introduction of Forest Service night helicopter firefighting operations in Southern California further establishes the agency’s commitment to protect lives and property in the region,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “California has already experienced wildfires this season, and is projected to continue to have a challenging summer. Night flying operations will provide an aggressive agency initial attack while better ensuring public safety, minimizing overall fire costs and lessening impacts to communities.”
Since August 2012, the Forest Service has conducted training of its pilots, crew and support staff for night-flying, and the process is now complete. Starting this week, the agency will finally begin employing a helicopter at night in order to battle blazes across the Los Angeles area. The helicopter and its crew will be based out of Fox Field in Lancaster, California.