More firefighting helicopters to be available in SoCal this summer

Two Chinooks and an S-61

N42CU Coulson CH-47 Chinook helicopter
Coulson’s CH-47 Chinook N42CU. Coulson photo, 2020.

This article first appeared at Fire Aviation.

Three counties in Southern California will be boosting their aerial firefighting capability this year with each adding one large contractor-owned helicopter.

Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange counties each have their own fleets of helicopters that can be used for firefighting and search and rescue. But in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, the 3,000-gallon Boeing CH-47D Chinooks they will add this year can carry three to eight times the loads of their FireHawks, UH-1H’s, and Bell 412EP’s.

Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties helicopters
Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties will be contracting for large helicopters this year.

Ventura County has arranged to add a Sikorsky S-61 with a 1,000-gallon tank. It will supplement their UH-1’s and the new-to-them Firehawk that just returned from Colorado after  being upgraded to Firehawk status with a new 1,000-gallon belly tank.

Orange County will also have a Sikorsky S-76 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness of drops, and identify targets with a laser designator.

Coulson S-76 and S-61 helicopter
Coulson S-76 and S-61, L to R. Coulson photo.

The three counties will be calling this a “Quick Reaction Force Program.”

All four of these aircraft are being supplied by Coulson Aviation and will be staffed 24/7, capable of flying and dropping water on wildfires at night. They can also perform a maneuver that few helicopters have done in recent decades — refill their tanks while hovering over a water source at night. That is common, of course, during daylight, but rarely done in darkness using night-vision goggles.

The aircraft will be on contract starting June 15 ranging from 150 to 180 days.

Much of the funding for the helicopters is being supplied by Southern California Edison (SCE), expanding their program which supplied one or two helicopters based in Orange County in 2019 and 2020. In those years SCE paid the daily availability costs and when it was used on fires the hourly fees were covered by the jurisdiction in which the fire occurred.

In 2020 SCE and the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) leased a CH-47D Chinook from Coulson. The night-flying helicopter was stationed at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in Orange County on a 24/7 schedule.

In 2019 the OCFA also had an arrangement with SCE for a 24/7 night flying helicopter. In that case Coulson supplied an S-61 capable of 1,000 gallons and a Sikorsky S-76. The S-76 was not leased in 2020 because it was going through an avionics upgrade getting ready for fighting fire in the upcoming Australian summer, but it will be part of the Quick Reaction Force Program in 2021.

It is likely that these and other helicopters will occasionally make use of the 69Bravo Helistop that is being upgraded with four metal 8,000-gallon automatically refilling water tanks. Designed to efficiently refill helicopters’ buckets or tanks, it is located on one of the highest peaks in the Topanga area of the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles County.

The Chinook, Firehawk, and S-61 can get to and from water sources quickly cruising at 140 to 160 mph, while the S-76 with the pedal to the metal tops out at 178 mph.

Coulson Chinooks being unloaded at Houston
Coulson Chinooks being unloaded at Houston after completing their firefighting contracts in South America. Coulson photo, May, 2021.

Firefighter critically burned during Silverado Fire released from hospital

Two firefighters were severely burned October 26, 2020 on the Southern California wildfire

Dylan Van Iwaarden released from hospital
Dylan Van Iwaarden was released from hospital after being burned on the Silverado Fire. Screengrab from CBS Los Angeles video.

One of the two firefighters that were burned on the Silverado Fire in Orange County, California was released from the hospital Wednesday after spending 114 days in the Burn Center at Orange County Global Medical Center. Dylan Van Iwaarden was severely burned October 26 while working on an Orange County Fire Authority hand crew suppressing the blaze.

Since then he has battled for his life, had 17 surgeries, was in a medically induced coma, intubated, and endured endless procedures. Dylan is now headed to his next phase of recovery at the rehabilitation unit of UC Irvine Medical Center.

Another firefighter on the crew, Phi Le, was also burned during the incident. Both firefighters suffered severe second and third degree burns. The Orange County Register reports that Le spent time in a burn center but has been discharged and is continuing his rehabilitation from home as of Wednesday.

The report on the incident said the crew was firing out when a spot fire ignited below the crew. They escaped downhill to a dozer line but five crew members were impacted by radiant and convective heat, reporting singed hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes while stumbling out of the way of the spot fire’s path. Three others, the report said, “were impacted significantly”.

Report released on burnover of firefighters on Silverado Fire

Two firefighters are still in critical condition in Orange County, California

Silverado Fire spot fires burnover firefighters injured

The two firefighters that suffered very serious injuries while battling the Silverado Fire are still in critical condition, on ventilators, and in induced comas. However, they have survived multiple surgeries and are improving, but they have a long and tough road ahead.

They are members of a 17-person Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) hand crew that was assigned to the fire east of Irvine, California on October 26, 2020 when the fire burned over their location. In addition to the two firefighters still hospitalized, another suffered radiant heat injuries and other firefighters had superficial heat injuries.

The OCFA has released an Informational Summary Report, or Green Sheet, about the incident.

The burnover occurred at about noon during a Red Flag Warning for strong offshore winds, low humidity, and dry fuels. The weather conditions at the time were 60 degrees, 8 percent relative humidity, and winds out of the north-northeast at 16 mph with gusts to 42 mph. The fire was burning in grass and brush, with live fuel moistures for the chamise and sage at or below the critical levels.

Map, Silverado Fire burnover October 26, 2020
Map, Silverado Fire burnover October 26, 2020. OCFA.

Very briefly, the firefighters were along an indirect mid-slope dozer line with fire below and unburned vegetation on both sides. They were firing out below the  line, igniting with drip torches until the wind kept blowing out the flames on the wicks, so they switched to using fusees. Several spot fires occurred on the slope above the dozer line which were suppressed by the crew. Another spot fire which grew rapidly about 80 feet above the line was attacked by eight firefighters with hand tools and three engine crew members with a fire hose.

Shortly thereafter, a second rapidly spreading spot fire started below and upwind of the eleven firefighters. They escaped from the area as best they could back down to the dozer line.

Escape routes Silverado Fire

Five hand crew members were impacted by radiant and convective heat, reporting singed hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes while stumbling out of the way of the second spot fire’s path. The remaining three hand crew members, according to the report, “were impacted significantly”.

The two most seriously injured personnel were transported with paramedics in an engine and a hand crew vehicle to Orange County Global Medical Center, arriving at 12:32 p.m. and 12:57 p.m.

There was no mention in the report of fire shelters, either being carried or deployed by the firefighters. We have unconfirmed information that they had fire shelters but there wasn’t enough time to deploy them.

The Silverado Fire burned 12,466 acres and destroyed 5 structures.

In 2007 in Orange County 12 firefighters on the Santiago Fire were entrapped and deployed fire shelters, but there were no serious injuries.

Silverado Fire map, October 28, 2020.
Silverado Fire map, October 28, 2020.

Orange County introduces pilot program for real time wildfire mapping

It is another step toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety

FIRIS fire wildfire mapping real time
An example of the technician’s screen when using the FIRIS system. Screenshot from the video below.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority began a 150-day pilot program that could lead to real time fire mapping being available to firefighters on the ground. Not knowing exactly where a fire is has been a factor in more than two dozen firefighter fatalities in recent decades. Smoke, terrain, and darkness can obstruct the view of fire crews and supervisors which can severely compromise their situational awareness.

The 150-day Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) pilot program got off the ground September 1 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

“The State of California must shift strategies to address the constant crisis of wildfires – this is no longer a seasonal threat,” stated Assemblywoman Petrie-Norris. “I am proud to have partnered with the Orange County Fire Authority in securing $4.5 million in state funds for technology that will protect lives and property by giving first responders better, stronger tools to use against the threat of wildfires.”

The system utilizes a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with infrared and radar sensors that can see through smoke. The plane provides real-time fire perimeter mapping and live high definition video to support supercomputer-based wildfire predictive spread modeling.

FIRIS fire wildfire mapping real time
Screenshot of aircraft featured in the FIRIS B-Roll video.

A supercomputer at the University of California San Diego will run fire spread projections based on fire perimeter data collected by the aircraft. The output will estimate where the fire will be in the next six hours. The fire spread model will adjust for successful fire suppression actions by firefighters on the ground and in the air. This intel allows for more timely and accurate decision making for resource allocation and evacuations.

“The ability to place resources exactly where they need to be to successfully battle a wildfire can mean the difference between lives and property saved or lost”, said Orange County Fire Authority Fire Chief Brian Fennessy. “Technology is becoming increasingly important as we work to suppress wildfires quickly. We’re hopeful this pilot program may someday become a routine asset statewide.”

For decision-makers on the ground, a common operating picture increases situational awareness. Firefighters on the front line, incident commanders, law enforcement, and regional and state emergency operation centers all could have the ability to see the same fire intel on a smartphone, tablet or computer in real-time. Fire perimeter maps and live video feeds are provided through an electronic network to assist decision-makers.

This is another step toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety which would ultimately provide to fire supervisors the real time location of a fire and the location of firefighting personnel and equipment.

The video below is “B-Roll”, that is, unedited footage. The first 6.5 minutes are simply images of aircraft, but after that you will be able to look over the shoulder of the imagery technician as he observes infrared imagery of a fire, manually interprets the heat signatures, then traces the fire perimeter on the screen. That perimeter could then be electronically sent to the super computer in San Diego County which would run a fire spread model to predict what the fire will do in the next six hours.