Super-Sized Helicopter Boosts Nighttime Wildfire Efforts

SCE provides $4 million for a pilot project for fire agencies throughout Southern California. OCFA Fire Chief: 'This could be a game changer thanks to Southern California Edison.'
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Stories : Safety

Super-Sized Helicopter Boosts Nighttime Wildfire Efforts

SCE provides $4 million for a pilot project for fire agencies throughout Southern California. OCFA Fire Chief: 'This could be a game changer thanks to Southern California Edison.'
Photo Credit: Maria Hedrick

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Firefighters will tell you that their best chance of stopping a wildfire is at night when the wind typically dies down, temperatures ease and humidity rises.

Southern California fire officials will get a boost this year in their night wildfire suppression efforts during a 150-day demonstration project with a new hover-filling helitanker that has three times the capacity of a conventional water-dropping helicopter.

It will be teamed with a reconnaissance helicopter that uses advanced imaging systems and pilots with night-vision goggles to operate after sundown. It is the first time this duo has been used in the United States to fight wildfires at night. The two helicopters were first used in a demonstration project in Victoria, Australia last year.

OCFA Fire Chief Brian Fennessy (left), Chris Thompson, SCE vice president of Local Public Affairs (center) and Wayne Coulson, CEO and president of Coulson Aviation, at an event announcing a water-dropping helicopter pilot project.
OCFA Fire Chief Brian Fennessy (left), Chris Thompson, SCE vice president of Local Public Affairs (center) and Wayne Coulson, CEO and president of Coulson Aviation, at an event announcing a water-dropping helicopter pilot project.

The Orange County Fire Authority partnered with Southern California Edison for the project, which began July 1. SCE provided $4 million in funding. The OCFA will manage the program which will be operated by Coulson Aviation (USA) Inc.. The helicopters will be available to fight wildfires throughout Southern California.

“This could be a game changer thanks to Southern California Edison,” said OCFA Fire Chief Brian Fennessy during a recent joint press conference at Fullerton Municipal Airport announcing the program. “To have this first-ever aerial resource that can hover‐fill and precisely drop large volumes of water on a fire at night will make a significant difference.”

He noted that having the ability to measure the helitanker’s effectiveness with the reconnaissance helicopter is particularly important.

“We will no longer have to wait for daylight to determine the impact we’ve had on stopping a fire,” said Fennessy. Representatives from 11 Southern California fire agencies joined OCFA and SCE at the event.

Pilots in a new water-dropping helicopter will use helmets like these equipped with night-vision goggles to fly after sundown.
Pilots in a new water-dropping helicopter will use helmets like these equipped with night-vision goggles to fly after sundown.

The project includes a Type 1 Sikorsky S‐61N helitanker that hovers above a water source to refill its 1,000-plus gallon tank. Because it can hover to refill, it can get back to the fire more quickly than a conventional water-dropping helicopter that must land and use ground-support crews to refill.

The Type 1 will work in tandem with a Type 2 Sikorsky S‐76B helicopter that will use its night vision equipment to scope out the fire area. It will use a laser to target a water source for the helitanker as well as where to make the drop. Immediately after the drop, the reconnaissance helicopter will follow up to see how effective it was in hitting the fire.

“This project will demonstrate a firefighting capability that is not currently available in the U.S. and provide additional resources to fire agencies across Southern California,” said Chris Thompson, SCE’s Vice President of Local Public Affairs. “This is an example of the most recent of SCE’s many significant investments to reduce catastrophic wildfire risk using innovative technology.”

This new water-dropping helicopter being used in a pilot program to fight wildfires at night can transport up to 18 firefighters in addition to the pilots.
This new water-dropping helicopter being used in a pilot program to fight wildfires at night can transport up to 18 firefighters in addition to the pilots.