In the wake of a stinging critique issued by the Los Angeles County Fire Department after last year’s Station Fire, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is reviewing its ban on most nighttime aerial fire fighting. The Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest raged for nearly two months before it was contained, but not until it had destroyed 250 sq mi of forest (160,000 acres) and 96 homes. At its apex it threatened more than 7,000 homes and 200 commercial properties. More than 4,800 firefighters fought the blaze. Helicopters (both owned and contract) from the Los Angeles County Fire Department flew a combined 155.5 flight hours. Total cost of fighting the fire was more than $90 million.
In a report issued late last year, L.A. County fire chief Mike Freeman asserted that the fire could have been better contained if the USFS allowed helicopter operations throughout the night and early morning of the fire’s first days, August 26 and 27. “To say that the [Los Angeles County Fire Department] fire helicopters could have been better utilized in the Station Fire is a fair and accurate assertion,” Freeman wrote. “The fire-suppression philosophy must move from ‘taking what the fire will give us’ to ‘hitting the fire early and hard.’ Specifically, nighttime rotary wing air attack (when safe) must be employed on a regular basis,” Freeman wrote.
Last year the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, outlined standards for safe nighttime aerial firefighting in its Interagency Helicopter Operations Guide. They include the requirement for multi-engine aircraft, minimum visibilities in controlled and uncontrolled airspace, surface reference, night vision goggles, standards for takeoff and landing areas, and limited conditions for single-engine operations.
Chief Freeman is not the first high-ranking California official to call for the USFS to revise its nighttime aerial firefighting practice. In 2008, San Diego County supervisor Dianne Jacob attempted to get nighttime aerial firefighting approved there based on data in reports on the 2003 Cedar Fire and the 2007 Witch Creek fire that decimated Rancho Bernardo. A USFS spokesman said the agency is reviewing its nighttime ban on aerial operations, but he gave no indication when or if the policy would be changed.
However, local pressure to effect a policy change is not likely to abate. “These [USFS] policies have created a fire-suppression paradigm that must be changed, especially in forests near major population areas,” Freeman wrote. That paradigm remains one in which the USFS views air assets primarily as supporting ground-based firefighters as opposed to swift-responding, first-strike weapons used for getting water and retardant on a fire early.