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Op-ed: With fire season upon us, US Forest Service night flying helicopter ready

Past restrictions lifted on fighting forest fires with aircraft.

June 07, 2013|By Adam Schiff

As firefighters struggle to contain the Powerhouse fire that is raging between Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley, we are reminded of the terrible devastation that fire, wind and dry fuel can bring.

We are also seeing the tremendous utility of night flying aircraft that can continue the fight when temperatures drop, attack hot spots that threaten containment efforts, or help develop tactical plans for morning. And for the first time in decades, the U.S. Forest Service has a night flying helicopter of its own ready and equipped to aid the fight.

Unfortunately, just four years ago, when the Station fire began in the Angeles National Forest — what would become the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history — this potentially life-saving capability was not available to the Forest Service which had a policy against using its own helicopters for night flights.

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On the afternoon of Aug. 26, 2009, a combination of high temperatures, low humidity and a large quantity of tinder-dry fuel in the Angeles Forest caused a wildfire to spread quickly throughout the surrounding area. Firefighters worked tirelessly that afternoon to quell the flames. By nightfall, the fire had been all but contained after a sustained effort by helicopters and planes. The advantage was short-lived, as the flames gathered strength overnight and outran ground crews the next morning. Before it was finally extinguished, the Station fire took the lives of two firefighters, destroyed 89 homes and burned more than 160,000 acres of land across the Foothills.

A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found that the use of night flying aircraft might have allowed the Forest Service to suppress the Station fire on that critical first night. The report 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.

The policy that prohibited USFS night flights was instituted in the 1970s following a tragic helicopter crash in the Angeles National Forest. Since that time, the Forest Service has not performed night flights itself, instead relying upon other agencies — like Los Angeles city and county fire departments — to use aircraft to douse flames at night. This works when those helicopters are available, but is a real problem when the local agencies need them for other emergencies.

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