Firefighting helicopter fleet returns to Orange County

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A Coulson Aviation CH-47 Chinook helitanker drops water during a demonstration at Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos on Tuesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

A fleet of four contracted firefighting helicopters flew into Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos on Tuesday to showcase their capabilities to defend Southern California residents and their homes.

The $18 million lease for the aircraft and semi-trailer truck-based teams is funded by Southern California Edison in partnership with Orange County Fire Authority, Los Angeles County Fire Department, and Ventura County Fire Department. The contract started on June 24 and is set to expire in late December.

The so-called Quick Reaction Force arrives as Laguna Beach recovers from two nerve-wracking fires this year: the 154-acre Emerald Fire in February and 200-acre Coastal Fire in May.

A CH-47 Chinook helitanker capable of carrying up to 3,000 gallons of water or retardant will be based at Los Alamitos Army Air Field. Coulson Aviation crews equipped with night vision goggles will stand watch in 12-hour shifts around the clock ready to respond anywhere in Edison’s service area.

“Night operations are critical to getting the upper hand on wildfires because fire behavior typically moderates at night with cooler temperatures, lighter winds, and higher humidities. It’s normally when the enemy is at its weakest,” Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said Tuesday while speaking from the flight line in Los Alamitos.

Fennessy said the goal is to keep all wildfires within 10 acres or less 95% of the time.

In addition to water-dropping helicopters, a S-76 surveillance helicopter crew using high-definition and thermal cameras will also be available to track fire movement and direct air support.

A Coulson Aviation S-76 surveillance helicopter on the flight line at Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos on Tuesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

A Coulson helitanker and surveillance helicopter were among the aircraft that helped extinguish a June 2021 vegetation fire off the SR-73 toll road west of Laguna Canyon. Firefighters kept that blaze to about 11 acres.

Steve Powell, president and CEO of Southern California Edison, said the utility aims to harden about 40% of 10,000 distribution line miles in high fire areas by the end of this year.

“SCE remains committed to protecting our communities and most importantly partnering with fire agencies so we can be ready to mitigate fires right as they start,” Powell said. “We’re honored to partner with these fire agencies while they continue to save and protect the lives of our residents.”

Steve Powell, president and CEO of Southern California Edison, speaks about the Quick Reaction Force at Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos on Tuesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

The Coastal Fire’s cause remains under investigation but Southern California Edison notified the California Public Utilities Commission that its grid experienced “circuit activity” in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park at 2:45 p.m. on May 11, public records show.

A lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court by Laguna Niguel homeowners claims that the fire was sparked by Edison’s “negligently operated, repaired and maintained electrical equipment” and the utility’s failure to clear vegetation away from its lines.

Laguna Beach officials have also taken some innovative steps to help get water on fires as fast as possible. In 2020, the Laguna Beach Fire Department bought a HeloPod, a mobile water tank capable of refilling hovering helicopters. During the Coastal Fire, the HeloPod contributed to 136 helicopter refills that dropped 38,000 gallons on the blaze

“The turnaround time was tremendous,” now-retired Fire Chief Mike Garcia said in May. “You have a couple of helicopters constantly dropping water. That is a successful purchase.”

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy speaks about the Quick Reaction Force at Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos on Tuesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne
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