The Orange County Fire Authority on Tuesday showcased nighttime aerial firefighting equipment that will be tried out in Southern California over the next five months.
The pilot program, which started this month, is funded by Southern California Edison and features two helicopters.
One of them has the capacity of carrying 1,000 gallons and can fill its tank at night while hovering over a water source instead of landing to load. The second helicopter will work as the reconnaissance aircraft and will help track the location of water drops more precisely and measure their effectiveness.
The duo will be manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week and will be available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
“Flying at night is not new, hover-filling (at night) is new and hover-filling with a large helitanker is brand new,” OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy said at a press conference at Fullerton Municipal Airport.
With the help of military-level night vision goggles and infrared technology, flight crews will be able to see better at night while combating blazes.
OCFA officials are calling the dual copter technology the first of its kind in the United States and are hoping it improves the way wildfires are fought by allowing for more drops at night when conditions are optimal.
“Typically temperatures are down, humidity is up, winds are less,” Fennessy said. “For the pilots there is less aircraft in the air, less radio traffic…it’s the perfect time to get after some of these fires.”
The greater 1,000-gallon capacity of the helitanker is also a benefit. Typical OCFA helicopters can carry only about 300 gallons.
“Putting significant amounts of water on a fire quickly … is a game changer.” Fennessy said.
The same kind of equipment was used to fight wildfires in Australia last year and was successful, officials said. With $4 million from Southern California Edison, the fire authority leased the helicopters from Coulson Aviation — which also provided aircraft for the Australian trial — and the company will provide pilots who can use the night vision technology.
Southern California Edison has teamed up with fire officials before to fund technology to combat wildfires. Last year, the company funded the installation of mountaintop cameras atop Santiago Peak to help more quickly spot wildfires.
“The unprecedented scale of this fire threat has been called the new normal,” said Chris Thompson of Southern California Edison. “We want to ensure the safety of this region.”
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