Expanded helitanker fleet returns to confront O.C. wildfire threat

A CH-47 Chinook operated by Coulson Aviation refills from Laguna Beach’s HeloPod in November 2020. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Three firefighting helicopters jointly leased by the Orange County Fire Authority and two other regional fire agencies have arrived in Los Alamitos and are available to suppress wildfires in Laguna Beach and across Southern California.

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy hosted a press conference Monday to publicize an $18 million grant from Southern California Edison to lease three helicopters: two Coulson-Unical CH-47 helitankers and a Sikorski-61 helitanker. A Sikorkski-76 fire reconnaissance helicopter acting as an airborne air traffic control tower will also be available to Orange County. The so-called Quick Response Force is joined by a fleet of up to five semi-trucks that can deliver thousands of gallons of fire retardant to the fire line.

“For the first time in history dropping large quantities of fire retardant at night,” Fennessy said. “This is the future of aerial firefighting.”

Rather than waiting for fixed-wing aircraft to return from refilling at nearby air tanker bases, a mobile retardant base carried on semi-trucks will be ready for hovering helitankers.

“It means a dramatic increase in the gallons of fire retardant delivered per hour,” Fennessy said.

The two very large helitankers are capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant or water in a single swoop. One of the heltitankers will be based at Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos and the other is headed to a Los Angeles County airport.

The Sikorski-61 helitanker, capable of dropping up to 1,000 gallons, will be stationed in Ventura County.

Southern California Edison CEO Kevin Payne said the investor-owned utility is proud to partner with Southern California fire agencies to protect communities in its 50,000-square-mile service area. 

“About a quarter of our service territory is high fire risk area so addressing the prevention and mitigation of wildfire in our communities is a top priority for SCE,” Payne said.

Laguna Beach officials have prodded Edison to do more to mitigate the risk of wildfires sparked by downed power lines.

Southern California residents are encouraged to do their part to prune vegetation and maintain defensible space around their homes for firefighters. It’s also critical for the public to comply with evacuation orders in a timely manner, Fennessy said.

“We’re once again in a drought and the vegetation is extremely dry,” he said.

Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia was among the dignitaries at the aircraft demonstration on Monday. He wasn’t immediately available for comment.

Last year, the utility funded a $2.2 million grant for one helitanker and a reconaissance helicopter leased from Coulson Aviation.

In November, one of CH-47 helitankers refilled from Laguna Beach’s mobile water tank during a training exercise. The so-called HeloPod can hold up to 5,000 gallons of water at one time and automatically refills as a helicopter sucks up water with an onboard snorkel.

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