California’s 2018 Woolsey Fire began in the afternoon of November 8, just outside Simi Valley near the borders of Ventura County, Los Angeles County, and the City of Los Angeles. Four Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations (LACoFD) joined numerous other aircraft and ground crews battling the blaze, which eventually burned more than 97,000 acres and destroyed 1,643 homes over the next four days. More than 295,000 people evacuated at the peak of the fire.
Operating on the leeward side of the flames due to high winds, LACoFD helicopters and crews were often the only aircraft working the lines. The winds kept the smoke low across the terrain and homes, forcing crews to fly and refuel within the smoke because the only way to attack the fire was to become engulfed in it. Flying conditions quickly became almost night-like due to the reduced visibility.
While the flight and ground crews rotated as necessary, the helicopters were shut down only for refueling and inspection. Operating in 24-hour shifts, maintenance and support crews worked tirelessly to keep the aircraft available for every launch, ensuring they were always safe and ready to go. A majority of the 20 people on the maintenance team volunteered into the night and weekend to ensure that routine maintenance was performed efficiently and safely.
The four LACoFD helicopters accumulated 119.4 flight hours in the first three days—equivalent to almost a month’s worth of flying and maintenance—and completed more than 350 water drops amid winds ranging from 40 to 70 knots.
This largest wildfire on record in Los Angeles County was not contained until November 22. (The November 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, which burned more than 150,000 acres, also started on November 8 and was contained on November 25.)
HAI is awarding its 2020 Salute to Excellence Humanitarian Service Award as a tribute to LACoFD’s S-70 Firehawk flight and ground crews who battled the 2018 Woolsey Fire. This prestigious award honors the person or persons who best demonstrate the value of helicopters to the communities in which they operate by providing aid to those in need.