Three counties in Southern California will be boosting their aerial firefighting capability this year with each adding one large contractor-owned helicopter.
Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange counties each have their own fleets of helicopters that can be used for firefighting and search and rescue. But in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, the 3,000-gallon Boeing CH-47D Chinooks they will add this year can carry three to eight times the loads of their FireHawks, UH-1H’s, and Bell 412EP’s.
Ventura County will add a Sikorsky S-61 with a 1,000-gallon tank. It will supplement their UH-1’s and the new-to-them Firehawk that just returned from Colorado after being upgraded to Firehawk status with a new 1,000-gallon belly tank.
The program for the three helicopters is being financed with nearly $18 million from Southern California Edison.
Orange County will also have a Sikorsky S-76 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness of drops, and identify targets with a laser designator.
The three counties will be calling this a “Quick Reaction Force Program.”
All four of these aircraft are being supplied by Coulson Aviation and will be staffed 24/7, capable of flying and dropping water on wildfires at night. They can also perform a maneuver that few helicopters have done in recent decades — refill their tanks while hovering over a water source at night. That is common, of course, during daylight, but rarely done in darkness using night-vision goggles.
The aircraft will be on contract starting June 15 ranging from 150 to 180 days.
Much of the funding for the helicopters is being supplied by Southern California Edison (SCE), expanding their program which supplied one or two helicopters based in Orange County in 2019 and 2020. In those years SCE paid the daily availability costs and when it was used on fires the hourly fees were covered by the jurisdiction in which the fire occurred.
In 2020 SCE and the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) leased a CH-47D Chinook from Coulson. The night-flying helicopter was stationed at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in Orange County on a 24/7 schedule.
In 2019 the OCFA also had an arrangement with SCE for a 24/7 night flying helicopter. In that case Coulson supplied an S-61 capable of 1,000 gallons and a Sikorsky S-76. The S-76 was not leased in 2020 because it was going through an avionics upgrade getting ready for fighting fire in the upcoming Australian summer, but it will be part of the Quick Reaction Force Program in 2021.
It is likely that these and other helicopters will occasionally make use of the 69Bravo Helistop that is being upgraded with four metal 8,000-gallon automatically refilling water tanks. Designed to efficiently refill helicopters’ buckets or tanks, it is located on one of the highest peaks in the Topanga area of the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles County.
The Chinook, Firehawk, and S-61 can get to and from water sources quickly cruising at 140 to 160 mph, while the S-76 with the pedal to the metal tops out at 178 mph.