Ventura County is converting military Blackhawks into FIREHAWKS

FIREHAWK blackhawk Ventura County
Ventura County is converting military HH-60L Blackhawks into FIREHAWKS. VCSO photo, Capt. Romano Bassi.

Ventura County has purchased three military HH-60L Blackhawk helicopters and is in the process of converting them into FIREHAWKS that will be used for fighting wildland fires, personnel transport, search and rescue, law enforcement, and medical evacuation.

Ventura County Battalion Chief Gary Monday said heavy maintenance and minor modifications were completed on the aircraft at HSI Sikorsky in Huntsville, Alabama, then two of the helicopters were painted at the United Rotorcraft facility in Decatur, Texas. One of them is now being ferried to United Rotorcraft in Englewood, Colorado to receive navigation and communication systems, cabin interiors, and a 1,000 gallon external fixed water tank with a retractable snorkel system. The landing gear will be replaced with higher gear to enable the installation of the belly tank.

FIREHAWK blackhawk Ventura County
A Ventura County HH-60L Blackhawk before being painted and converted into a FIREHAWK. VCFD photo.

The military had the aircraft originally configured by United Rotorcraft as dedicated MEDEVAC helicopters with medical equipment and patient litter systems, some of which will be repurposed in the new FIREHAWK configuration.

Ventura County, in Southern California, has a joint Fire Department and Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit. In addition to the FIREHAWKS, they have one Bell 206 Jet Ranger, one 212 HP, one 205B, and two UH-1A Hueys.

“We are a full service 24/7 operation capable of Night Vision Goggle rescues and firefighting”, Chief Monday said, “with three 375 simplex tanks for nighttime water dropping missions, S & R missions, LE missions, and anything else.”

FIREHAWK blackhawk Ventura County
Ventura County is converting military HH-60L Blackhawks into FIREHAWKS. VC FD photo.

In 2016 one of the Hueys, Copter 7, developed a mechanical problem while fighting the Pine Fire on the Los Padres National Forest. It had to be stripped down in order to transport it via truck on a route that included a tunnel with a height restriction.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Gary and Isaac. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Firefighting at Los Angeles International Airport

Los Angeles Fire Department airport rescue
Screen grab from LAFD video.

Airport firefighting is a very specialized niche —  there are not many similarities in what they do compared to most other firefighters. For example, one of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s rigs at the city’s airport can apply by the push of a button on the dash, water, foam, dry chemical, or Halotron (a clean agent). That truck also has a penetrator device which can pierce the fuselage of an aircraft in order to apply one of the four suppressing agents in the interior of the aircraft.

Los Angeles Fire Department airport rescue
A penetrating nozzle on a Los Angeles Fire Department airport rescue truck. Screen grab from LAFD video.

Much more information is in the video below about the Los Angeles Fire Department Airport Rescue Firefighting organization.

Lead plane pilot honored for working despite losing his home in fire

David Spliethof award lead plane
Lead Plane Pilot David Spliethof (2nd from left) receives award. Left to right: Deputy Regional Forester Barnie Gyant, Spliethof,  Acting DRF Edward Hunter,  Region 5 Aviation Officer Yolanda Saldana,  Acting DRF Larry Sutton,  Region 5 Fire Director Bob Baird,  Regional Forester Randy Moore. USFS photo by Paul Wade.

A U.S. Forest Service lead plane pilot whose home was destroyed in the Carr Fire near Redding, California earlier this year continued to work each day guiding large air tankers as they made their retardant drops on the fire. On December 12 David Spliethof received a 2018 Regional Forester’s Honor Award for the work he did on the fire. The award is given to those who went above and beyond their scope of duty to perform an act of service of rare or exceptional character that reflects an uncommon degree of concern for the well-being of others.

Mr. Spliethof continued to fly as a lead plane pilot for days after he knew he lost his home and all of his family’s belongings. The Spliefthof’s had nothing but the clothes on their backs. He said in an interview that there is no place he would rather be than flying and helping others instead of feeling sorry for himself. He had his family, so he continued to fly to minimize the loss of more homes. Several air tanker pilots stated that for a while they had no idea Mr. Spliefthof lost his home because he was professional and never missed a beat.

There is a critical shortage of lead plane pilots and he had every reason to forgo his duties and focus on his personal situation. However, he chose to serve the agency and the public.

Introduction to the Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter program

LAFD helicopter
AgustaWestland AW139. Screenshot from the LAFD video.

The Los Angeles Fire Department(LAFD) aviation program started in 1962 with one Bell 47. Today they have six helicopters, four AgustaWestland AW139’s and two Bell Jet Rangers. To work as a pilot with the Department, you can’t simply walk in off the street. The minimum qualifications are:

  • Private helicopter license,
  • At least 100 hours of flight time in a helicopter, and,
  • Four years experience as a firefighter with the LAFD.
LAFD helicopter crane rescue
Screenshot from the LAFD video.

After a pilot is accepted into the program they are shipped over to the Los Angeles Police Department aviation program where they receive training with 150 hours of flight time, a commercial license, and an instrument rating. If successful there, they go back to the Fire Department and get another 200 flight hours of training. Then there is additional schooling at AgustaWestland to fly their 139.

The video below has much more information.

Santa Barbara County hopes to purchase a used Blackhawk

The Fire Department may acquire it from the National Guard

LA County FD Firehawk
Santa Barbara County plans to purchase a used Blackhawk helicopter which could be retrofitted similar to the Firehawks operated by Los Angeles County. Photo by LA County FD.

The Santa Barbara County supervisors voted 5-0 to approve the submission of a competitive bid for the fire department to purchase a Blackhawk helicopter from the National Guard.

Currently the agency operates two Bell OH-58A+ helicopters used primarily for law enforcement operations.  These aircraft are equipped with multi-agency communications radios, Forward Looking InfraRed technology, powerful searchlights, LoJack stolen vehicle tracking equipment, photo and video equipment, and mapping technology.

The department also operates three Rescue/Firefighting aircraft: two Bell UH-1H Hueys and a Bell UH-1N twin-engine Huey.  All three Huey Aircraft are equipped with rescue hoists, capable of lowering rescue personnel into remote or otherwise inaccessible locations and extricating lost or injured persons who could not be rescued by conventional means.  All of the Huey aircraft are also capable of fire suppression missions using either fixed water tanks or removable long-line buckets.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Santa Ynez Valley News:

Interim Fire Chief Michael Dyer said the Blackhawk helicopter will cost less than $1.73 million, noting Cal Fire just purchased two new Black Hawks for between $20 million and $25 million each. He said there will be some additional costs to remove military-specific equipment from the Black Hawk and install the gear necessary to turn it into a Firehawk aerial firefighting unit. The annual operation and maintenance costs also will be higher than the choppers the county currently operates.

County Fire’s Hueys fly at 120 knots and carry 360 gallons of water, but the Firehawk will fly at 190 knots and carry 1,000 gallons of water, which can be released as a full load or in three separate loads. It can also carry twice as many personnel, Dyer said.

In addition to the $1.7 million purchase price of the Blackhawk, the additional costs of retrofitting and maintenance will bring the total up to about $4.7 million. The most costly task will be the installation of the 1,000-gallon water tank including extending the landing gear, which raises the aircraft to make room for the tank.

The helicopter they hope to purchase has been used as an air ambulance by the National Guard. It has about 3,200 hours on it and was built in 2002.

One of the Hueys now operated by the department flew in the Vietnam War and is 51 years old. Parts are becoming difficult to find for the helicopter fleet, with all of them being previously owned and retired by the military.

Two of the district supervisors stated that the fire department needs to develop a long range strategic plan for managing and funding the helicopter fleet.

At least three other firefighting agencies in California have recently purchased new Blackhawk helicopters, CAL FIRELos Angeles County , and San Diego Fire Department.


The article was revised to show that San Diego city, rather than San Diego County, is acquiring a new Blackhawk.

Drones map the Camp Fire

The photos and videos can help residents check the status of their homes

Camp Fire drone photo
Photo taken by a drone in Paradise near Kilcrease Circle.

(This article was first published on Fire Aviation)

A large group of mapping and drone experts have photographed from the air the Paradise, California area that was devastated by the Camp Fire that roared through the communities November 8. The photos and videos shot by drones were all georeferenced and put into a map format, making it possible for residents to check the status of their homes. Drones flew above all of the major roads shooting videos, and 360-degree photos were taken from the air in 200 locations which can be panned and zoomed. The resolution is very good since they were taken with 20 megapixel cameras.

Camp Fire drone photo
Photo taken by a drone in Magalia near Indian Drive.

The maps can be viewed at the Butte County website. The site is a little glitchy and I found that it did not work well with the Chrome browser; the street names, videos, and 360-degree photos were not available. It worked fairly well with the Firefox browser, but a window on the left side could not be eliminated which obscured about half the map. I did not try it with Internet Explorer. In spite of these issues, what the group accomplished in about two days is an incredible achievement, and may be the first time the process has been used on this scale to provide such detailed information to a population suffering from a natural disaster.

To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the Camp Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.

The 16 teams of drone operators conducted 500 flights in two days to collect 70,000 photos over 17,000 acres.

In addition to this resource, officials are mapping one by one the structures affected by the fire. That map is also available to residents who want to check on the status of their homes.

The video below explains the technical details of how the imagery was collected and displayed.

Helicopter diverts from dropping water to rescuing civilians… and dogs

“This is rapidly becoming very ugly.”

Helicopter Rescue Woolsey Fire California
Screenshot from the LA Fire Department video below. Three people and two dogs were rescued as the Woolsey Fire approached.

While on a water dropping mission on November 9, the second day of the Woolsey Fire in Southern California, a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter received a new assignment. Civilians were trapped on a mountain top as the fire approached. Even as they were running critically low on fuel the pilots found a way to land on a ridge top that was littered with communication towers and vehicles.

The video below was shot from a pilot’s helmet camera.

It was great work, team work, by the pilots to successfully pull this off. We appreciate that he filmed what they were doing, and that their department approved and helped to publicize the fact that the recording exists. Some public agencies have draconian rules about their employees or the public taking photos or filming their activities. Videos like this can help citizens understand what fire departments do and how they are carrying out their missions even as politicians may lob uninformed verbal assaults their way.

CAL FIRE says the Woolsey Fire has burned 96,949 acres and 1,500 structures, with no breakdown of residences vs. outbuildings. The number of civilian fatalities has remained at three for several days.

Great video of drop by a DC-10

DC-10 retardant drop
Screengrab from the video below of a drop from a DC-10. Check out the shadow.

In the image above the shadow is very cool.

10 Tanker Air Carrier just sent out a tweet with a link to the video below that is on a Facebook page. It is titled “Rocky Fire”, but had no description. I am unaware of a current fire with that name. I thought it looked familiar, and I found that we had a YouTube copy of it in August, 2015. The Rocky Fire burned almost 70,000 acres near Clear Lake, California. At any rate, it’s a great video, so you’re getting another opportunity to see it — the YouTube copy — which is the same as the one on Facebook.