From Griffith Park to Catalina Island, helicopter pilots periodically battle wildfires at night in Los Angeles County, and now at least two agencies are considering bringing night water drops to the Inland area.
"We've been working on it for the last year or two," Chief Mike Padilla said of Cal Fire's study of how night water drops might be made by his statewide helicopter fleet. "LA. County (Fire Department is) probably the most experienced agency in night firefighting.
"We're talking to them ... and assessing what we want to do."
Preliminary evaluations may be made with one or two of Cal Fire's 11 Vietnam War-era military-surplus helicopters, including one stationed in Hemet. But a full-scale program would require newer and specially equipped choppers, which are at least three or four years away, Padilla said.
Cal Fire is responsible for fire protection on state lands and it serves as Riverside County's fire department.
In San Bernardino County, the sheriff's 15 helicopter pilots and their supervisors have been discussing the possibility of making nighttime water drops.
Every fire season, one of the sheriff's 11 helicopters is assigned full-time to daylight firefighting duty under a contract with Cal Fire.
"We have the ... ships, the night-vision goggles, the (water) buckets and pilots," Lt. Tom Hornsby said. "So from the policy decision to do it, it would take us two months (to develop guidelines and to train an initial group of pilots). But that would be hard-charging. And then we'd have only three or four pilots to drop water at night on goggles."
Nine additional months would be required to train the remaining pilots, he estimated.
But Hornsby emphasized that no policy decision has been made for sheriff's pilots to do nighttime firefighting.
That decision -- for the Sheriff's Department, Cal Fire and any other agencies that might consider night drops -- depends partly on whether the benefits are worth the risk to pilots, who would be flying low over turbulent fires, surrounded by wires and other obstructions, in the dark, officials agreed.
Benefit vs. Risk
"The benefit of (night water drops) is: Fire isn't as intense at night so you can get a greater effect from your water dropping," said Chief Bill Smith of the Running Springs Fire Department in the San Bernardino Mountains.
But even at night, water drops must be made from low altitude, which raises the specter of collisions with everything from power lines to other helicopters.
In July 1977, two water-dropping helicopters -- whose pilots were using night-vision goggles -- collided while preparing to land at a reloading point in the Angeles National Forest. One pilot was killed. Another was critically injured.
"That pretty much put a damper on any night flying," recalled Smith, a U.S. Forest Service retiree.
The Forest Service, which operated one of those helicopters, no longer conducts night water drops and has no plans to resume them, said spokeswoman Rose Davis.
The other helicopter was operated by LA County Fire Department, whose crews didn't return to using night-vision goggles until 2001 -- and then primarily for nighttime rescue missions.
"It took us from 2001 to 2005 flying goggles in our area until we felt comfortable doing night firefighting," recalled Tom Short, senior pilot for LA County Fire Department. "We did not just jump into this."
Night goggles amplify existing light, everything from starlight to streetlights. Pilots say they use the goggles on nearly every night firefighting flight, though not necessarily during the water drop.
"I'll flip the goggles up because I have enough light around the fire to see," Short said. "It's when I'm going to and from my water source that I'll use the goggles."
Ponds, lakes and other water sources often are in unlighted locations and close to wires that are difficult, sometimes impossible, to see from the air even during the day, requiring pilots to search for the poles or towers that support the lines.
So it's important for pilots to be familiar with an area in daylight before they attempt night drops there, Short said. For that reason, he says it's especially reasonable for Cal Fire to proceed slowly.
"I think it's a very wise thing (for Cal Fire) to be wary ... because of the large area in which their pilots respond. It's impossible to have (detailed) knowledge of the whole state," said Short, who had flown in Los Angeles County for about 10 years before he attempted water drops there with night-vision goggles.
Now, 30 years after the first goggle-related collision of two firefighting helicopters, Short and others say the collision is worth remembering as an indication of the potential and the risks of night firefighting.
"The technology of those goggles was nothing like we have now," he emphasized. "But that accident sticks in our minds."
Military Leads Way
As Cal Fire and the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department each consider nighttime water drops, their pilots with military flight experience tend to be the most comfortable with the idea.
"I've got 300 or 400 hours in night-vision goggles ... with the military," said Padilla, Cal Fire's top-ranking aviation official. "The last time I flew them was in Bosnia in '99."
One of his staff officers wore goggles when he was in the Marine Corps and flew Marine One, the president's helicopter.
At the sheriff's helicopter unit, three former military pilots have become the agency's night-vision goggle instructors.
Beginning last year, the San Bernardino County sheriff's pilots have been using the goggles to fly at night on their police patrols. And six of their newest helicopters are capable of making night water drops.
Because it takes time to become comfortable using the goggles during all conditions, each pilot uses the goggles on flights over urban areas before progressing to more difficult geographical areas. Remote portions of the desert are particularly dark. And in dark mountainous areas, the terrain creates additional hazards.
"We may add (rescue) hoist operations as the next mission," said Hornsby, the unit's lieutenant. "And after that, firefighting, or maybe not."
A key consideration before risking pilots and spending perhaps $100,000 on equipment and training, Hornsby said, is determining how often night water drops would be needed.
That question remains unanswered, he said.
"We're not there yet."
Reach Richard Brooks at 909-806-3057 or rbrooks@PE.com"