Night-flying by fire agencies in California gains interest as state's wildfire threat grows

Key Points
  • Night-flying by fire agencies in California could grow, reflecting technology advancements and the increasing severity of wildfires in the state.
  • Cal Fire currently lacks capability to fly nighttime fire drops with its fleet of 50 aircraft but that will change in the coming years when it gets delivery of a dozen Black Hawk copters.
  • L.A. County Fire already uses the Black Hawk for attacking nighttime blazes, although that practice is less common among local fire agencies in the northern portion of the state.
  • Meantime, Lockheed Martin developed a special fire version on its large C-130 aircraft that is capable of night firefighting.
A U.S. Airforce C-130 Hercules drops fire retardant at the Holy Fire near Lake Elsinore, in Orange County, California, on August 7, 2018.
David McNew | AFP | Getty Images

The largest wildfire in California history serves as a reminder that the state is in the grip of a dangerous trend of increasingly larger and faster-moving blazes that may require new methods and strategies to fight in the coming years.

Night-flying by California fire agencies could become more frequent in coming years given the increasing wildfire risk and drought conditions around the state. Fire agencies in local jurisdictions in Southern California have taken the lead and are already conducting night operations using rotary-wing aircraft to slow or stop fires quickly before they can get out of control.

"In the future you're going to see it proliferate," said Mike Sagely, a senior helicopter pilot with the L.A. County Fire. "Night firefighting is important because typically fires tend to lay down at night and the fire behavior is much less aggressive."

Mendocino Complex fire continues to threaten California

Overall, Cal Fire has 50 aircraft in its fleet but currently doesn't have nighttime aerial firefighting capabilities with its equipment. That could change once the agency gets a dozen new Black Hawk helicopters, including some capable of flying with night vision goggles.

"It's a new step for us," said Scott McLean, Cal Fire deputy chief. "Some of the Black Hawks we're getting in over the next five years have night-flight characteristics."

The Mendocino Complex fire in Northern California this week became the largest wildfire in the state's history but there's been no night aerial firefighting activities for that blaze, according to fire officials. The monster fire has burned 119 structures and charred more than 253,000 acres, or some 395 square miles — bigger than the entire city of San Diego.

The surge in wildfire activity comes as the recent Drought Monitor shows about two-thirds of the state is in "moderate" or "severe" drought, and portions of the state near the Arizona line are in "extreme" drought.

In all, 15 large wildfires are burning in the state, according to Cal Fire. Another large blaze is the Carr fire near Redding, where more than 1,000 structures were destroyed and seven fatalities reported.

According to Cal Fire, about 14,000 firefighters are on the lines fighting fires throughout California, including crews from 17 other states as well as New Zealand and Australia. The cost of fighting the wildfires has been so great that the state has already spent more than one-fourth of its annual emergency fire fund for the fiscal year that began only July 1.

"Fires are more a part of our ordinary experience," Gov. Jerry Brown said last week. "We're in for a really rough ride. It's going to get expensive, it's going to get dangerous, and we have to apply all our creativity to making the best out of what is going to be an increasingly bad situation."

The night aerial firefighting that does occur in the state is focused on rotary-wing aircraft operated by fire agencies in several counties of Southern California, including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, Ventura and Kern. One night water drop that took place in the region this week was for a fire in the Riverside area that threatened structures.

In Northern California, though, daily air attack operations tend to shut down at sunset. But Kern County Fire last year sent one of its copters fitted with night equipment to the scene of the Tubbs fire about 350 miles away in Northern California's wine country to assist firefighters on the ground. October's Tubbs fire remains the state's most destructive wildfire ever, causing the loss of more than 5,600 structures and 22 fatalities.

While rotary-wing aircraft have proven useful in controlling night fires, there's still debate whether fixed-wing air tankers are safe enough to use after dark to combat fires. Advances in technology could make them more acceptable for night missions in the coming years to slow or stop spreading fires.

"As far as fixed wing, that would be something that we'd have to sit down and look at if it's feasible," said Cal Fire's McLean.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor, there are no specific regulations pertaining to nighttime aerial firefighting operations but there are rules "that prohibit careless or reckless operations. A pilot involved in nighttime wildfire fighting operations should fly so that he or she can remain safely away from any other aircraft as well as obstacles and/or terrain, and doesn't pose a hazard to people on the ground."

"It will have to be a pretty slow and deliberate process to progress into flying a loaded airplane of that size into the mountainous terrain and the altitudes that they have to fly in," said Sagely, a former Army pilot with extensive experience using night vision goggles. "But I'm sure it's coming."

One fixed-wing aircraft that could benefit if night firefighting takes off is Lockheed Martin's LM-100J FireHerc, which supports night vision goggles after modifications were made to the panel lights. It is a firefighting variant of the company's C-130J military aircraft.

"There's a lot of interest in night firefighting," said Tony Frese, vice president of business development for air mobility and maritime missions at Lockheed. Still, he suggests more technology maybe needed before fire agencies use fixed-wing aircraft for night firefighting.

Frese said the company has looked at various sensor technologies for the FireHerc that borrow from the defense company's knowledge of its fighter and missile programs. For example, he said sensor data and processors could fuse together information and display it to pilots so they can get a real-time view of the terrain and fire environment.

"We've done a lot of hard things on military missions," he said. "I think we can do hard things on the civil side when it comes to firefighting."

Regardless, Frese said Lockheed is talking with certain "U.S. government offices" to discuss the capabilities of the FireHerc as well as looking at international business for the firefighting aircraft.

The U.S. Forest Service currently doesn't conduct nighttime firefighting using fixed-wing aircraft but has one helicopter in California contracted for night vision goggle flying to fight forest fires. The Forest Service had a ban on nighttime flying in place for about 30 years due to safety and cost reasons but reversed course in 2012 after facing pressure from several California elected officials.

Lockheed's FireHerc can carry up to 5,000 gallons of retardant, or just over four times the amount that can be held by the Grumman S-2T fixed-wing air tankers operated by Cal Fire.

Besides having 23 S-2Ts, Cal Fire's fleet includes 13 Vietnam War-era UH-1H Super Huey copters to drop water or fire retardant on the wildfires. The agency also has received help from California National Guard's CH-47 Chinook, a copter manufactured by Boeing and fitted with a large bucket to drop water or retardant.

"Some of the water buckets [on the Chinook] can hold up to 3,000 gallons of water (more than 16,000 pounds) — the equivalent of dropping a small swimming pool on a forest fire," said Andrew Africk, a spokesman for Boeing.

At the same time, Cal Fire has other firefighter aircraft at its disposal under a "call when needed" contract to battle fires. Those include a handful of DC-10 airplanes and a retired Boeing 747 dubbed the Global Supertanker — all currently based near Sacramento. The 747's passenger area on the plane was retrofitted to hold a whopping 19,200 gallons of retardant or water.

A Boeing official said the aerospace and defense company's commercial airplanes division doesn't offer firefighting airplanes or capabilities. He explained that those capabilities are retrofitted into aircraft in the aftermarket.

Even before Cal Fire takes delivery of its new Black Hawk copters, it is getting a helping hand in fighting the Northern California wildfires from the California Army National National's Black Hawk copters fitted to drop water or retardant.

According to Jeanette Eaton, regional vice president for North America for Sikorsky, the increase in wildfires in recent years has generated interest on the part of government agencies for the commercial version of the military's Black Hawk known as Firehawk.

At present, there are three Sikorsky-made Firehawks in operation with L.A. County Fire and 20 orders from various agencies, including Cal Fire and San Diego County Fire. Some of the Firehawk's firefighter features such as the snorkel water pump and tank are added by an outside company, United Rotorcraft.

"Counties up and down the West Coast and Cal Fire have been fighting to secure funding and keep the funding," she said. The Sikorsky executive said the strength of the copter is in the initial attack phase of fires to give "a knockout punch when minutes matter."

L.A. County was the first local jurisdiction to buy the Firehawk in 2000 and took delivery of two additional copters in December that offer better speeds and performance. The Firehawk's 1,000-gallon belly for water isn't as large as some other copters used in firefighting such as the CH-47 but it wins on speed.

"Getting aircraft and water to the fire as quickly as possible helps you buy time by slowing the fire for ground resources to get there," said Sagely.. "Sometimes you can put the fire out with the aircraft because you have enough water. So the initial attack game is everything for us"