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San Diego Fire-Rescue unveils cutting-edge helicopter to battle fires

by Rob Nikolewski, San Diego Union-Tribune |

With large swaths of California scalded by wildfires in recent years, the city of San Diego’s Fire-Rescue Department on Thursday unveiled a nearly $20-million helicopter that will help bolster efforts to stop fast-moving blazes before they get out of control.

The Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk, dubbed Copter 3, can fly at night and drop 1,000 gallons of water in a single load. It increases the number of choppers in the department’s fleet to three.

“If there’s a need to get a fire crew out on the fire line that’s otherwise inaccessible, Copter 3 can transport a larger crew that can help out (where) our other two copters cannot,” said Fire-Rescue Chief Colin Stowell.

The new helicopter’s features include:

>> a computer-controlled drop system that can vary the water-drop pattern, depending on what type of vegetation is acting as fuel for the fire
>> a retractable snorkel that can refill the tank in about one minute
>> a high-intensity searchlight for night flights, as well as tactical communications and network systems, and
>> for search and rescue missions, an external hoist that can carry about 600 pounds and a cargo hook that can carry up to 9,000 pounds

Copter 3 is operated by a crew of three and can carry 12 additional people, compared to only six in the department’s two other choppers.

“We’re a city built on canyons,” said San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who urged the San Diego City Council in December 2017 to approve the purchase. “And when we have dry weather, when we have wind events, two helicopters just weren’t enough to give us the coverage that we’re going to need to get on a fire quickly – and to do it at night.”

The department’s air operations program began in 1999. The first helicopter bought in 2003 has racked up 17,000 hours at a cost of about $5 million while Copter 2, purchased for about $11 million, has been flying since 2007.

The helicopters will be protected from rust and corrosion by a new $13.7 million hangar, also approved by the San Diego City Council. The 30,000 square-foot facility is located at Montgomery Field in Kearny Mesa.

“San Diego has over 45,000 properties adjacent to canyon rims and open spaces, posing a significant fire risk in our city,” Stowell said. “The speed of our response and the capabilities of our equipment during the initial attack of these vegetation fires are critical to saving lives and those properties.”

The Firehawk also adds to the region’s overall fleet.

San Diego Gas & Electric, which has spent $1.5 billion in ratepayer funds on wildfire prevention efforts after deadly blazes in 2007 destroyed more than 1,300 homes and killed two people, leases two choppers that can be dispatched by Cal Fire – an Erickson Skycrane known as Sky Maverick that has dropped more than 1 million gallons of water on fires in the past decade and a UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter that was recently contracted for year-round rapid-response.

The County of San Diego, working in conjunction with Cal Fire, flies two helicopters. In addition, the federal government-run Cleveland National Forest flies a wildfire-battling chopper out of Ramona.

The Ryan Air Attack Base out of Hemet also has a fleet of aircraft that can reach into the Bonsall area of San Diego County when needed.

Although San Diego has largely avoided devastating wildfires in recent years, the number and intensity of fires in California have increased with deadly consequences. Eight of the 10 most destructive fires in California history have occurred in the past 12 years.

Two months ago, the Tick Fire in Los Angeles County destroyed 22 structures. In Northern California, the Kincade Fire wiped out 374 structures and about 1 million Pacific Gas & Electric customers had their power cut off, leading to heavy criticism of the investor-owned utility.