Laguna Beach will buy portable water tank to refill firefighting helicopters mid-flight

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An Orange County Fire Authority helicopter hovers over a HeloPod that is similar to the tank system that is slated to be installed at Top of the World. Photo courtesy of Pump-Pod USA

Laguna Beach will purchase a helicopter refilling tank system that will allow firefighting aircraft to take on water while hovering, increasing the frequency of drops on wildfires threatening neighborhoods.

The Laguna Beach City Council voted to spend $53,000 on a HeloPod Dip Tank, a shipping container that’s been modified to fill with up to 7,000 gallons of water. Orange County Fire Authority helicopters can lower a snorkel to suck up hundreds of gallons without having to land, power down, and take on water from a waiting firefighter crew.

“This frees up fire personnel for other duties on the fire line,” Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia said. “It allows each helicopter to make more drops per hour.”

Laguna Beach could have the system within two to three weeks, Garcia said. City officials plan to place the HeloPod on a trailer and drive it up to fire road near the entrance to Aliso & Woods Canyon Wilderness Parks. In future years, the HeloPod would likely remain there from July 1 to Nov. 30. Outside of these peak fire months, the city could remove and store it at another location.

The tank system would remain empty until remotely triggered by helicopter pilots to refill via a nearby hydrant.

“Aerial firefighting is a necessary component in battling wildfires and protecting residents. Having this new heli-hydrant available for our helicopters to rapidly refill water will greatly assist in minimizing the damage caused by fires,” Orange County Fire Authority Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said in a prepared statement. “We appreciate the city of Laguna Beach for taking this step to provide another resource to help aid in the fight on wildfires.”

It’s very likely that the HeloPod will need to be placed on OC Parks property based on the Orange County Fire Authority requirements for an open and secure space to safely refill its helicopters, Garcia said. City officials need to inquire with the County about is permit requirements

“That’s an area that is grazed and will not be filled with any sensitive species or any vegetation that will be ruined by the placement of it,” Garcia said.

Mayor Bob Whalen recommended the Planning Commission be tasked with selecting a paint job for the tank’s exterior to improve its aesthetic.

Laguna Beach fire officials also looked for a potential second HeloPod site in South Laguna, Laguna Canyon, and near El Morro Elementary. So far, they haven’t found one that meets OCFA’s requirements.

The City Council directed city staff to keep looking for a suitable second location.

The helicopter refilling system was one of many recommendations in the Wildfire Safety and Mitigation Report approved by the City Council last year. Due to the economic fallout from the pandemic, councilmembers temporarily shelved the idea this summer. In September, city staff reported collecting more revenue than anticipated in transient occupancy taxes via Measure LL and the City Council decided to restore $150,000 in funding for the helicopter refiling program.

Sonny Myers, director of the Laguna Beach Community Emergency Response Team, urged the City Council to get the first HeloPod installed as quickly as possible and continue investigating a potential second site.

“We’ve had enough close calls with the Canyon Fire on July 3 a few years ago, the Ruby’s Fire, and the Aliso Fire,” Myers said. “Anything we can do to get us protected a little quicker is going to be a good benefit for the city and surrounding communities.”

The HeloPod will be able to refill the CH-47 Chinook leased to the Orange County Fire Authority for the next three months. Piloted by Coulson Aircraft out of Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos, the helitanker can release up to 3,000 gallons in a single drop.

Southern California Edison has contributed about $2.2 million toward OCFA’s lease of the aircraft from Coulson Unical.

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