When Desiree Horton was hired by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in 2013 she became, as far as we know, the only female firefighting helicopter pilot working for a government agency. Her first posting with CAL FIRE was at Kneeland, a very small community in the northwest corner of the state about 10 air miles east of Eureka. At first she was living in the back seat of her pickup truck and later upgraded to a camper she put on the back. She would work for seven days then make the 12-hour drive back to Southern California.
The next year she transferred to the helicopter base at Prado east of Los Angeles, making it possible to sleep in her own bed every night. She expected to retire there but when an opportunity with the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) in Southern California became available she couldn’t turn it down.
“When this opportunity presented itself it was a really tough decision,” she said. “Walking away from the growth that CAL FIRE was offering and the expansion of the department with the new ‘Hawks — it was a tough choice.” She said she likes the diversity of the mission in Orange County, including the rescues that are not as common with CAL FIRE.
CAL FIRE has started replacing their UH-1H Super Hueys with Sikorsky Firehawks. One or two of them have been physically delivered from Sikorsky and the after-market conversion company United Rotorcraft, but none have been officially accepted from the contractors yet.
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The OCFA helicopter fleet
The OCFA has four helicopters, two military surplus UH-1Hs and two Bell 412EPs based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California. They both can carry up to about 360 gallons of water but are limited to around 200 gallons if the fuel tank is close to full.
In July of last year the OCFA received a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison for Coulson Aviation to supply two helicopters that were based at Fullerton Airport. One of the ships was an S-61 with a collapsable external tank capable of night flying and hover-refilling at night. The second helicopter was a Sikorsky S-76 that worked with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. The two helicopters were staffed 24/7 and available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.
In 2008 the OCFA made the decision to begin using helicopters at night to perform rescues and fight fire. They spent $25 million to purchase two Bell 412 helicopters specially outfitted for night flying, but a dispute with their pilots’ union grounded them at night. The agency spent $100,000 on night-vision goggles and training, but union officials and department management grappled over the technicalities of the program.
But fast-forward to 2015 and the agency had four helicopters equipped for night flying and began a six-month pilot program in which helicopters rotated 24-hour shifts to cover day and night.
Pilot Joey Heaslet said most of their flight training now is conducted at night, explaining that if you can perform a task well at night it’s even easier in daylight.
Chief Brian Fennessy
Brian Fennessy was the Chief of the San Diego Fire Department before he became OCFA Fire Chief in March of 2018. He said the UH-1Hs built in 1966 are showing their age, are challenging to maintain, and parts are becoming difficult to find — the same issues that were identified by CAL FIRE when they made the decision to replace their Super Hueys with Firehawks. The Bell 412EPs were manufactured in 2008.
“All four of our aircraft need to be replaced,” said the Chief who has served as Air Operations Branch Director on Incident Management Teams.
As part of the process of evaluating what the agency’s next step is after retiring the Hueys, he talked with several vendors last week at the HAI HELI-EXPO a few miles from OCFA’s headquarters. There were over 60 helicopters inside the Anaheim Convention Center and about 700 exhibitors.
That evaluation process also includes a Fleet Replacement Analysis by an aviation consultant, Conklin & de Decker Associates, an organization that completed a similar study for San Diego in 2017 when Chief Fennessy was the chief there. After that study and one for Los Angeles County Fire Department in 2000 both departments purchased Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks.
The Chief said the study for OCFA has been underway for about a year and a half and he believes it is nearing completion.
Below is a table from the Conklin & de Decker study for the San Diego FD, comparing five models of helicopters:
Real-time fire mapping
Another program Orange County was involved in last year was a 150-day pilot program that makes real time fire mapping available to firefighters on the ground. The Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) utilizes a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with infrared and radar sensors that can see through smoke. The plane provides real-time fire perimeter mapping and live high definition video to support supercomputer-based wildfire predictive spread modeling. Chief Fennessy began exploring this technology when he was in San Diego. It became real when implemented September 1, 2019 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).
Using FIRIS, heat from the fire is detected by sensors on the plane where a technician interprets the imagery and manually draws a line around the perimeter. A map is then sent through WhatsApp to cell phones of firefighters on the ground. Within about three minutes a super computer in San Diego can add a projection of the anticipated spread of the fire.
This equipment could be a major step toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when the exact location of one or both of these critical aspects of situational awareness were unknown. Examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires.
Conflicts between aviation units of OCFA and the Sheriff’s office
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has five helicopters, AS350s used for patrol and UH-1Hs with hoists for rescue.
According to the Orange County Register, in 2017 Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens decided to unilaterally take over helicopter rescue operations in the county’s remote areas. Until then the Sheriff Department’s air fleet had taken the lead for searches, while the Orange County Fire Authority handled rescues. During parts of 2017 and 2018 helicopters from both agencies were appearing over the same incident potentially causing airspace conflicts and confusion. At times the pilots of the Sheriff’s helicopters ignored orders from Incident Commanders to stand down. According to the Orange County Register conflicts occurred twice on April 29, 2017. In a recording of the radio traffic a Laguna Beach dispatcher told a fire official “It sounds like the sheriffs have gone rogue. They’re not listening to the (Incident Commander).”
The interagency battle escalated to the point where the 2017-2018 Orange County grand jury launched an investigation. Their report listed a number of recommendations including having the Sheriff Department helicopters move from John Wayne Airport to co-locate with the Fire Authority at Fullerton Airport where there is unused hangar space owned by the county. The report stated, “Colocating allows public aviation units to leverage each other’s resources, gain economies of scale in maintenance and training, and encourages use of best practices.”
Carrie Braun, Director of Public Affairs and Community Engagement for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said they have discussed co-locating with the Fire Authority and those talks are ongoing.
The grand jury report includes a copy of a July, 2017 Memorandum of Agreement drafted to establish responsibilities, frequencies, and procedures for incidents where more than one helicopter is at the scene. There were several interagency meetings held to work out the details. OCFA was invited to participate, but attended only one meeting and was the only air support unit not to sign the MOU. The document has signatures for representatives of the Sheriff’s office, Highway Patrol, and two local cities, but the line for the Fire Authority’s signature is blank.
On January 27, 2020 I asked Chief Fennessy about the issue:
“That was a very ugly chapter I think in both ours and the Sheriff’s history. When I came here [in March, 2018] that was pretty embarrassing… When I was named to be the Chief the very first thing I did before I even showed up for my first day at work was I met with Sheriff Hutchens… She wanted this thing to be behind her too… Let’s tell everybody this is how we’re going to behave and this is how it’s going to work and be done with this. And literally within days if not weeks of my arrival here, not just because of me but because of the willingness on the Sheriff’s side, we made a few necessary changes within our organizations and it ended.”
“We send three helicopters generally in the summer on the report of a fire,” the Chief said, “two of ours and one of their’s. They’ve got aircraft that are capable of dropping water, why wouldn’t we? If we need to put a spotter up, a HLCO [Helicopter Coordinator], they make one of their helicopters available.”
The solution they came up with is to split the responsibility for rescues. The Sheriff’s ships respond on weekends, Friday through Sunday, and OCFA takes Monday through Thursday plus, using their night flying capability, OCFA handles all fires and rescues at night.
Ms. Braun of the Sheriff’s Department said talking points their agency prepared for an August, 2018 press conference in which Sheriff Hutchens and Chief Fennessy discussed the resolution of the helicopter response responsibilities indicate that that the Sheriff thanked the Chief for his leadership and collaboration, and felt that, “Back in January, I wasn’t sure we would be standing here today. We had tried to mediate the situation and had come to an impasse. From the moment Chief Fennessy entered the conversation, bridges were being built.”