Calif. firefighters have new tool to battle wildfires: night-vision goggles

Firefighting pilots have been using the gear to combat the Fairview and Mosquito Fires


San Gabriel Valley Tribune

WEST COVINA, Calif. — Spies and Navy SEALs are not the only ones who don night vision goggles — at least not anymore.

Now, elite firefighting pilots wear them too.

The Mosquito Fire burns along a ridge top in unincorporated Placer County, Calif., on Sept. 8. A handful of firefighting pilots have used new night goggle technology to combat the Fairview and Mosquito fires.
The Mosquito Fire burns along a ridge top in unincorporated Placer County, Calif., on Sept. 8. A handful of firefighting pilots have used new night goggle technology to combat the Fairview and Mosquito fires. (Photo/Noah Berger/Associated Press)

A handful of firefighting pilots in California, in fact, have used new night goggle technology to combat the destructive Fairview Fire near Hemet and the vast Mosquito Fire in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The new, yet dangerous-to-use goggles, allow pilots to get closer to wildfires at night, spot new flareups and gather other crucial information.

The state-of-the-art goggles and CAL FIRE's modified Blackhawk helicopter are being used, for the first time, to fight wildfires at night.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has 12 modified Blackhawk helicopters are about 33% faster than the reliable Huey aircraft and carry far more water. But only a few of these new Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopters carry the night goggle technology — and pilots must be specially trained because it's difficult to master.

The elite group of goggle-trained firefighting pilots have attacked vast fires at night in Northern and Southern California, playing a role in the Fairview fire that killed two and blackened 28,000 acres in the Inland Empire. A modified Blackhawk has pulled 1,000 gallons of water at a time from Diamond Valley Lake to drop on the Fairview fire.

The night-vision goggles use technology that works on a subatomic level, converting photons into electrons and then multiplying them. Tiny flashes from the electrons brighten the image the user sees through the goggles.

The new night technology makes firefighter pilots "ready for extended attack," a CAL FIRE spokesman said in an interview with Fox Channel 40 Sacramento, which is covering the Mosquito fire. The Mosquito fire is the largest in California, blackening 50,000 acres and destroying 24 homes.

Only a handful of pilots, according to CAL FIRE, are trained to use the night vision goggles, whose technology makes flying far more challenging.

Normally, a firefighting pilot has a 200-degree field of view. But when wearing the night goggles, their field of vision is far narrower — 40 degrees.

For years, attempts to attack wildfires at night were seen as dangerous, and CAL FIRE limited its efforts to daylight hours.

But now, thanks to intensive training of pilots who use the advanced aviation technology, night flying operations are expected to expand.

That will give firefighters another tool to fight deadly and destructive wildfires — a tool once reserved for spies and SEALs.

Staff writer Jeff Goertzen contributed to this report.

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(c)2022 San Gabriel Valley Tribune, West Covina, Calif.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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