Helitanker trains on Laguna Beach’s refilling water tank

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

A helicopter water tanker capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons refilled from Laguna Beach’s mobile water tank during a training exercise held Tuesday.

The Orange County Fire Authority leased the CH-47 Chinook with the help of a $2.2 million grant from Southern California Edison. The large helitanker is based at Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos and available for wildfires throughout Southern California.

On Tuesday, Laguna Beach firefighters filled the HeloPod via a firehose connected to a nearby hydrant. For now it’s been installed on the fire road between the Top of the World Trailhead and Moulton Meadows Park. However, it can be trailered and moved to another location in the city.

“The beauty of this location is that it’s central,” Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia said.

Although the HeloPod can hold up to 5,000 gallons of water at one time, it automatically refills as a helicopter sucks up water with an onboard snorkel.

Fire agencies prefer not to use the ocean to refill their helicopters because saltwater corrodes the multi-million dollar aircraft. Although Sulphur Creek Reservoir in Laguna Niguel is a short flight away, traveling to and from Laguna Beach adds precious minutes to pilots’ flight patterns during fast-moving wildfires.

The Chinook piloted by contracted pilots with Coulson Aviation was joined by a smaller Orange County Fire Authority helicopter. The OCFA helicopter landed before the demonstration to drop off a pair of medics who observed from the ground alongside Orange County and Laguna Beach firefighters.

Both aircraft then performed at least two water drops in the canyons adjacent to the fire road.

The CH-47 crew made history in October as the first private helitanker crew to use night vision goggles for firefighting at night while working the Silverado Fire.

Laguna Beach continues to search for a safe location for a second HeloPod, Garcia said after Tuesday’s exercise.

“We wanted to take action and get this in place,” Garcia said. “Now that we have this place, we’re going to look for a second location.”

Councilmember Sue Kempf said she was impressed with the helitanker’s ability to quickly suck up thousands of gallons. Kempf served on the council subcommittee that recommended a helicopter hydrant and about 40 other wildfire mitigation programs.

“I feel safer for the whole town knowing that it’s in place today,” she said.

Orange County Fire Authority medics walk the fire road after disembarking from an OCFA helicopter on Tuesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne
A CH-47 Chinook drops water in a canyon off the fire road during a training exercise on Tuesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne
A CH-47 Chinook drops water in a canyon off the fire road during a training exercise on Tuesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne
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