ABC News features southern California helicopter pilot

Desiree Horton
Desiree Horton. Screenshot from ABC video.

ABC News has a three-minute video report on the only full time firefighting helicopter pilot employed by a government agency in California. In addition to working for Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) where is is now, she previously flew helicopters for CAL FIRE, a privately owned helicopter company with a firefighting contract, a  heavy lift operator, a helicopter tour company in Hawaii, and TV stations in Los Angeles.

The video below appears to have been produced before Desiree started working at the OCFA.

More articles about Desiree are on Fire Aviation and Wildfire Today.

Orange County begins trial of real time mapping technology

The project is funded by the State of California

This article was first published at Wildfire Today

FIRIS fire wildfire mapping real time
An example of the technician’s screen when using the FIRIS system. Screenshot from the video below.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority began a 150-day pilot program that could lead to real time fire mapping being available to firefighters on the ground. Not knowing exactly where a fire is has been a factor in more than two dozen firefighter fatalities in recent decades. Smoke, terrain, and darkness can obstruct the view of fire crews and supervisors which can severely compromise their situational awareness.

The 150-day Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) pilot program got off the ground September 1 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

“The State of California must shift strategies to address the constant crisis of wildfires – this is no longer a seasonal threat,” stated Assemblywoman Petrie-Norris. “I am proud to have partnered with the Orange County Fire Authority in securing $4.5 million in state funds for technology that will protect lives and property by giving first responders better, stronger tools to use against the threat of wildfires.”

The system 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.

FIRIS fire wildfire mapping real time
Screenshot of aircraft featured in the FIRIS B-Roll video.

A supercomputer at the University of California San Diego will run fire spread projections based on fire perimeter data collected by the aircraft. The output will estimate where the fire will be in the next six hours. The fire spread model will adjust for successful fire suppression actions by firefighters on the ground and in the air. This intel allows for more timely and accurate decision making for resource allocation and evacuations.

“The ability to place resources exactly where they need to be to successfully battle a wildfire can mean the difference between lives and property saved or lost”, said Orange County Fire Authority Fire Chief Brian Fennessy. “Technology is becoming increasingly important as we work to suppress wildfires quickly. We’re hopeful this pilot program may someday become a routine asset statewide.”

For decision-makers on the ground, a common operating picture increases situational awareness. Firefighters on the front line, incident commanders, law enforcement, and regional and state emergency operation centers all could have the ability to see the same fire intel on a smartphone, tablet or computer in real-time. Fire perimeter maps and live video feeds are provided through an electronic network to assist decision-makers.

This is another step toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety which would ultimately provide to fire supervisors the real time location of a fire and the location of firefighting personnel and equipment.

The video below is “B-Roll, that is, unedited footage. The first 6.5 minutes are simply images of aircraft, but after that you will be able to look over the shoulder of the imagery technician as he observes infrared imagery of a fire, manually interprets the heat signatures, then traces the fire perimeter on the screen. That perimeter could then be electronically sent to the super computer in San Diego County which would run a fire spread model to predict what the fire will do in the next six hours.

Orange County begins trial of night-flying, hover-filling helicopter

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase 2 of the night-flying trial in Australia. February, 2018. Coulson photo.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) is beginning a trial of a night-flying firefighting helicopter that can refill its collapsable external water tank while hovering. Thanks to a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison the OCFA has awarded a 150-day contract to Coulson Aviation for two helicopters that will be based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California (map).

The one that will be most visible is an S-61 that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water. As demonstrated during the recent bushfire season in Australia the Coulson helicopter can hover over a water tank at night and use a hose to refill the tank. Night-flying helicopters have been used in the United States since the 1970s to fight fires, but until a few months ago they always had to land to reload, with firefighters on the ground dragging hose, connecting it, pumping water into the tank, disconnecting, and moving out of the way as the helicopter takes off. Hover refilling is more time-efficient.

Firefighting at night can be more effective, since usually winds subside, relative humidity increases, and temperatures decrease, resulting in lower intensity and rates of spread.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Since then, the livery has changed. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The second helicopter that is part of the trial is a Sikorsky S-76 that will work with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. In Australia the S-76 orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 and used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the water dropping helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

The two helicopters will be staffed 24/7 and will be available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Orange County’s regular helicopter fleet consists of two Super Hueys and two Bell 412ep ships, and has been using night-flying helicopters for years.

The video below shows an Orange County night-flying drill, uploaded to Vimeo July 8, 2019.

After 40 meetings two southern California agencies still battle over aviation responsibilities

The Orange County Fire Authority and the County Sheriff’s office sometimes both send helicopters to the same rescue incidents

Orange County Fire Authority helicopters
Orange County Fire Authority helicopters. OCFA photo.

For almost a year the Orange County Sheriff’s office and the Orange County Fire Authority have battled over which agency has the responsibility for providing helicopters for rescue incidents in the Southern California county. Occasionally helicopters from both agencies show up at a scene when only one is needed, creating safety issues when neither one wants to back down. We first wrote about this situation May 6, 2017.

And it has gotten worse, according to an article in the Orange County Register. Below is an excerpt:

The battles over which agency should conduct air rescues in Orange County have become so frequent and so dangerous that county supervisors decided Tuesday to refer the problem to a state agency in the hope it can help settle a dispute.

The board’s direction came after Orange County Fire Authority Chief Patrick McIntosh told supervisors his pilots would continue responding to air rescue calls and ignore Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ recent decision to unilaterally take over helicopter rescue operations in the county’s remote areas.

Hutchens’ announcement Jan. 16 formally ended a prior agreement that named Orange County Fire Authority as the county’s primary responder. It also came after two years during which pilots from the Sheriff’s Department and the fire authority have regularly clashed, with helicopters from both agencies racing to rescue scenes on dozens of calls, at times arguing over radio and face-to-face after flying in the same airspace.

Sheriff and Fire Departments in Orange County feud over helicopter responses

Orange County Fire Authority helicopter

Above: file photo of firefighter with Orange County Fire Authority helicopter. OCFA photo.

In an air battle over the responsibility for helicopter rescues in Orange County, California the losers are the taxpayers and accident victims.

Historically the County Sheriff’s Department air fleet has taken the lead for searches, while the Orange County Fire Authority has handled rescues. Recently, however, the Sheriff has been poaching responses to rescues resulting in multiple helicopters appearing over the same incident potentially causing airspace conflicts and confusion.

According to the Orange County Register it happened twice on April 29, with the Sheriff’s helicopter being told repeatedly by the Incident Commander they were not requested and then ignoring orders to “stand down”.

Below is an excerpt from their article:

…Recordings from radio chatter on Saturday show sheriff pilots ignoring direct orders from local commanders.

In Orange, the commander on the ground told the sheriff pilot, “You will abide by what the ground (Incident Commander) is asking you to do.”

The sheriff helicopter completed the medical assistance call anyway.

“My concern is if you have four aircraft in the air, and the sheriff refuses to communicate, who will get hurt if there is an air accident?” said Orange City Fire Dept. Deputy Chief Robert Stefano.

In Laguna Beach, where an intoxicated 17-year-old was pulled from a beach cove, the commander told the Sheriff’s pilot, “You are not requested.” The Laguna official also declared that the Sheriff’s pilot was creating “an unsafe air operation” by not answering direct orders.

In another recording of the same incident, a Laguna Beach dispatcher told a fire official “It sounds like the sheriffs have gone rogue. They’re not listening to the (Incident Commander).”

It is absurd that emergency management professionals operating very expensive aircraft cannot act like adults and do what is best for the taxpayers, citizens, and accident victims who need the best medical care available administered in a safe environment.

The Orange County Register has a recording of the radio conversations that is astounding.

Orange County helicopters ready for night flying

The Orange County Fire Authority now has four helicopters ready to operate at night. Beginning in March, the southern California agency began a six-month pilot program in which their four helicopters rotate 24-hour shifts to cover day and night.

In 2008 the OCFA made the decision to begin using helicopters at night to fight fire. They even purchased $25 million worth of 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.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Orange County Register:

…The benefit of night flights was shown on Sept. 4, 2010, when the fire authority sent a helicopter into a nighttime blaze for the first time. The crew made 12 water drops, and helped contain a 10-acre fire in less than three hours. The flight crew was in the parking lot on its way home when they got the a call around 7:56 p.m. for assistance.

The [six-month trial program] comes six years after an independent auditor recommended the fire authority could improve after the 2007 Santiago Fire that scorched more than 28,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes in Orange County.

Because of budgetary and safety concerns, round-the-clock air operations took a back seat to other issues in the six years since adopting night-vision technology, said Gene Hernandez, vice chairman of the Fire Authority’s board of directors.

“There was significant changes occurring in the organization that we needed to address, and this wasn’t a front-burner issue,” Hernandez said, citing budget cuts at the time.

The extra coverage allows the fire agency to respond to the 25 percent of calls for air assistance that used to fall outside the previous 12-hour duty day, according to a staff report. Last year, the agency’s helicopters responded to 196 calls total.

The helicopters sometimes still flew at night, but only when on-call crews responded back to work.

Under the new program, one aircraft will be staffed with a pilot and crew chief, with a firefighter/paramedic rescuer added on the weekends, at an annual cost of $1.5 million.