An additional firefighting helicopter to be available in San Diego County

Blackhawk helicopter
File photo of a Blackhawk helicopter that was working the Rankin Fire in Wind Cave National Park September 13, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The helicopters that are fully certificated and available in San Diego County for firefighting has grown in the last 15 or 20 years from practically nothing to eight now that an additional helicopter will be added to the mix.

Last week the County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to split the cost of a Blackhawk helicopter with San Diego Gas and Electric. After the agreement is finalized, the helicopter will be positioned in the north part of the county during Red Flag Warning conditions.

Under the agreement SDG&E will cover the costs to operate the helicopter for the first two hours of any new flight, and the County will cover the second two flight hours. If used during a fire, the County could pay a maximum of $150,000 depending on flight time and reimbursements from the State of California or the federal government.

The County also shares a year-round lease with SDG&E for an Erickson Skycrane helicopter, which was put into action for several 2018 fires including the West Fire in Alpine, the Rangeland Fire in Ramona, the Pasqual Fire and the Recycle Fire in Campo.

The region currently has 10 aircraft available for initial attack:

  • A U.S. Forest Service firefighting helicopter during fire season
  • Three CAL FIRE fixed-wing aircraft, which consists of two retardant dropping airtankers and an air tactical supervisor plane,
  • Three County Sheriff/CAL FIRE helicopters
  • Two City of San Diego helicopters
  • The SDG&E-leased Erickson Skycrane helicopter.

For an extended attack the County can also call on 26 military helicopters if available.

Skycrane helicopter
The Skycrane helicopter leased by the County and SDG&E from Erickson. SDG&E photo.

San Diego Gas & Electric makes their Air-Crane available year-round

Previously it was on contract for four months each year

SGE&E's Erickson Air-Crane helicopter
SGE&E’s Erickson Air-Crane helicopter. Click to enlarge. SDG&E photo.

Since 2009 San Diego Gas and Electric has made an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter available to assist wildland firefighters in San Diego County for four months each year, July through October. The company just announced that they are modifying the contract they have with Erickson and will now have it stationed year-round at Gillespie Field near El Cajon, California. The 2,650-gallon helicopter is flown by Erickson pilots under the direction of Cal Fire.

This change, according to SGE&E officials, is in response to “what is now the year-round threat of wildfires”.

It is a unique financial arrangement that shares the cost with the County of San Diego. SDG&E, via its ratepayers, has been picking up the $1.75 million annual tab for four months of availability each season as well as the first two hours of flight time when used on a fire. San Diego County pays for hours three and four. If it is needed for more than four hours it would most likely be on a large fire and the additional cost could be paid by another agency such as the state or federal government, if they needed the aircraft.

A power company and the county share cost of a Skycrane

Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter wildfire
File photo: A Sikorsky Skycrane drops about 2,600 gallons of water on the Red Canyon Fire 9 miles southwest of Pringle, SD July 9, 2016.

San Diego Gas and Electric is in its ninth year of contracting for an Erickson Skycrane helicopter. It is a unique financial arrangement that shares the cost with the County of San Diego. SDG&E, via its ratepayers, picks up the $1.75 million annual tab for availability each season, July through October, as well as the first two hours of flight time when used on a fire. The county pays for hours three and four. If it is needed for more than four hours it would most likely be on a large fire and the additional cost could be paid by another agency such as the state or federal government, if they needed the aircraft.

The current contract for the Skycrane, which carries up to 2,650 gallons, is in effect through 2022.

Erickson buys back the Air-Crane it sold to power company

sunbird aircrane
SDG&E’s Sunbird Air-crane helicopter, scooping water at Lake Hodges, shortly after it was delivered in August, 2010. SDG&E photo.

Erickson Air-Crane has bought back an Air-Crane helicopter that it sold two years ago to a power company in California. In 2010 Erickson sold a $30 million S-64F Air-Crane to San Diego Gas and Electric which acquired it to facilitate the construction of a powerline in eastern San Diego County. The company also made it available for fighting wildfires, using the call sign Helicopter 729 when operating on a fire, and “Sunbird” when working on the powerline. The Air-Crane can carry 2,650 gallons of water when suppressing a fire.

Erickson paid SDG&E $21.75 million, according to Portland Business Journal, to purchase the Type 1 helicopter in October.

In conjunction with the aircraft transaction, Erickson entered into an agreement with SDG&E to provide an Air-Crane for fire suppression support in San Diego County this Fall. SDG&E leased the aircraft for a 3-month period from September through November 2012, with an option to renew the lease for the same period each year through 2016.

Erickson added the aircraft to its fleet which now expands to 18 Air-Cranes. The company said it will allow the Company to meet the growing demand for heavy-lift aerial services in the oil-and-gas and powerline construction sectors.

Erickson Air-Crane went public April 11, 20121, selling stock at an initial public offering. Listed as EAC on NASDAC, it sold for about $8 that day, which netted $32 million for the company, about half of what they hoped for a few months earlier. The company used the proceeds to help pay down their debt which as of December 31, 2011 was $130.6 million. Since the IPO the stock price has ranged from $5.35 to $8.50 and closed at $8.03 Friday.

In 2007, ZM Private Equity Fund bought the company, and in 2009 moved the headquarters to Portland. ZM retained 63 percent ownership after it went public with the sale of stock.