The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) will resume contract night helicopter firefighting operations in Southern California next year. The announcement was made recently after the USFS evaluated a study it commissioned that was completed in 2010. That study found that helicopter night operations can mitigate the costs and risks of wildfires by retarding their size.
The USFS began night helicopter firefighting in 1976 using a contracted Bell 212 equipped with night-vision goggles (NVGs). In 1977 a Los Angeles County helicopter and a USFS helicopter collided during night operations on a wildfire, resulting in one death and prompting Los Angeles County to suspend its NVG program at the time. The County resumed night fire operations using NVGs in 2005. The USFS discontinued night helicopter operations in 1983, citing limited use and program cost.
The Forest Service’s move comes as various entities in Southern California operate, or prepare to operate, 17 helicopters in night operations. Those entities include San Diego City, Orange County, Los Angeles City, Los Angeles County, Santa Barbara County and Kern County.
In announcing the planned resumption of night operations, Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell noted, “We have made this important decision very carefully. We have studied night operations from every angle–risk management, business and operations–and we have concluded we can conduct night operations safely and effectively.”
A USFS spokesman told AIN that, while the agency had not selected a specific contractor and helicopter model, “it will be a Type II” or medium-category helicopter such as a Bell 412 or AgustaWestland AW139.
The 2010 Forest Service Helicopter Night Operations Study identified 130 mitigation measures that would need to be addressed before designing, implementing and operating a safe helicopter night operations program.
The new contract helicopter will be based in Southern California and join those that the Forest Service currently uses as needed under established agreements with several organizations there. It will be equipped to drop water and retardant, but could see its mission expanded to emergency medical transport, prescribed burning and aerial supervision of firefighting aircraft traffic. The Forest Service will use the helicopter for firefighting operations only on protected land within and adjacent to the Angeles, Cleveland and San Bernardino National Forests, and the southern half of the Los Padres National Forest. Together, the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests have more than 200 fires annually.
Nationwide, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior respond to approximately 16,500 wildfires annually on land under their jurisdiction. They also assist state and local agencies with another 60,000 wildfires per year that occur in those jurisdictions.