San Diego County buys $16M helicopter to help fight wildfires

Sheriff's Department pilots may be trained so they can go on nighttime firefighting flights

Karen Kucher
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Millions of dollars are being invested to expand the region's ability to fight fires from the air, with the county government moving ahead with plans to buy a twin-engine helicopter as SDG&E adds two new choppers to its fleet.

The expansion of the aerial arsenal comes as county leaders worry that climate change — with its hotter, drier weather patterns — could fuel more wildfires in the region.

San Diego County in recent decades has endured several devastating out-of-control wildfires, most notably firestorms in 2003 that charred more than 376,000 acres, killed 17 people and destroyed more than 2,600 homes and firestorms in 2007 that burned around 370,000 acres, killed 10 and destroyed nearly 1,700 homes.

In late April, county supervisors voted unanimously to buy a Bell 412 EXP helicopter to be used by the county Sheriff's Department. The vote authorizes $16 million for the purchase of the aircraft, outfitting it with specialized gear like a hoist, radios, skids that allow the helicopter to land in rough terrain and a 375-gallon water tank. The contract also would include some pilot and mechanic training.

Officials say the twin-engine chopper is safer, can carry more water and can ferry more personnel to fight fires than the existing helicopters used by the department. It is expected to be delivered in about 18 months.

"We have seen historic fires throughout our state and the western United States in recent years and we must continue to do everything we can to adequately prepare for the very real risk of wildfire in San Diego," Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher said in a written report supporting the helicopter purchase. "That includes taking every possible step to make sure that our first responders have the regional assets they need to fight fires on a 24-hour basis."

The purchase represents the county's first step toward acquiring a new generation of firefighting helicopters to replace the Sheriff's Department's three single-engine helicopters, which were built in the 1960s and 1970s. The department also has three patrol helicopters.

"The current Bell 205s, they are just an aging fleet," said sheriff's Lt. Dave Buether, who oversees the department's ASTREA or Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies unit. "We've had some of them nearly 50 years. They've handled a lot of fires over the years. They've done what we've asked them to do. They are just aging... The new 412 is a newer platform, with a twin engine. And has a better capability to put personnel on target and fight the fires more quickly."

The ultimate goal is to train Sheriff's Department pilots on the new Bell and eventually take on nighttime firefighting missions.

That would be a major change in the region's firefighting landscape. For now, San Diego Fire- Rescue's three helicopters remain the only ones in the county that can drop water at night.

The city of San Diego has been providing aerial support for firefighting for more than two decades, initially relying on a donated helicopter for a 30-day loan in October 2000, and later funding a lease through a partnership of corporate sponsors and private donors. The city bought its first helicopter in 2005 — just over a year after the massive and destructive Cedar fire made it clear the region needed more resources to fight large wildfires.

The county isn't the only organization in the region making big-ticket helicopter buys.

San Diego Gas & Electric, which for years has provided aerial firefighting assets to help protect the region, also is spending millions to acquire new helicopters. Arcing and downed power lines were determined to be the cause of the 2007 Witch Creek fire, which ignited east of Ramona, and two other major fires, two state investigations found. The utility has never admitted liability for the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice fires, but has not disputed its equipment was involved.

The company is buying a Bell 412 EPX — the same model the county is purchasing — for $11.6 million and is spending another $2 million to outfit it for firefighting use, said Tom Fries, aviation services manager with SDG&E. It is expected to be operational later this year.

SDG&E also is purchasing a Sikorsky Firehawk helicopter for $16 million, plus spending about $5 million to convert it to firefighting use, Fries said. It is expected to be operational in 2023.

SDG&E eventually will have a fleet of five helicopters: two focused on firefighting — the Erickson Air Crane and the new Firehawk — and three that will be used for firefighting as well as everyday patrolling, maintenance and construction work, such as replacing power poles, Fries said.

SDG&E's firefighting efforts began in 2010 as a seasonal program, but have since expanded to year-round flying. In the past five years, SDG&E's helicopters responded to 144 fires with 333 flight hours of service, according to a county board letter. Each year the company's helicopters drop around 750,000 to 800,000 gallons of water on fires in the county.

"We are not a firefighting organization, and we rely heavily on Cal Fire to dispatch us. We listen to them when we are needed," Fries said.

He said the company looks at its aerial firefighting program as "insurance" and a way to help firefighters.

"Any time there's a fire — it doesn't matter who started the fire — it is going to affect SDG&E equipment," he said. "So the quicker we can put out that fire, suppress that fire, that's our insurance piece to not have to replace lots and lots of stuff."

Under the agreement SDG&E has with the county, its helicopters, which are based at Gillespie Field, are available for dispatch to any fire in the region. The contract says SDG&E will pick up the cost of the first two hours of the flights and the county pays the cost of the next two. The county's contribution is capped at $150,000 per year.

Cal Fire spokesman Thomas Shoots said the planned helicopter purchases by the county and SDG&E are "pretty significant" for the region.

Having helicopters available "ensures that San Diego will have a good, solid initial attack aerial response" so air crews can knock down flames when the fires are still small, Shoots said. Cal Fire staff ride on board Sheriff's Department helicopters to help coordinate water drops.

"Certainly any kind of additional resources, when it comes to the firefighting air fleet in San Diego, will be huge for Cal Fire and we are glad to have it," he said.

Cal Fire doesn't have any helicopters based in San Diego County. During wildfires, they request them from other areas because they are considered statewide resources. The closest Cal Fire helicopter is based at the Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base in Riverside County.

In the event of a wildfire in San Diego County, two U.S. Forest Service helicopters also can be tapped to assist in aerial firefighting, Shoots said.

Shoots said Cal Fire expects to have one or two night-flying helicopters operating in California by the end of 2022. Cal Fire's entry into nighttime firefighting comes decades after the agency's aviation branch started flying air tankers in the 1950s.

A SDG&E spokesman said two of the company's helicopters are capable of night flying and said it was "a developing capability we are exploring with Cal Fire."


©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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