As firefighters struggle to contain the Powerhouse fire that is raging between Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley, we are reminded of the terrible devastation that fire, wind and dry fuel can bring.
We are also seeing the tremendous utility of night flying aircraft that can continue the fight when temperatures drop, attack hot spots that threaten containment efforts, or help develop tactical plans for morning. And for the first time in decades, the U.S. Forest Service has a night flying helicopter of its own ready and equipped to aid the fight.
Unfortunately, just four years ago, when the Station fire began in the Angeles National Forest — what would become the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history — this potentially life-saving capability was not available to the Forest Service which had a policy against using its own helicopters for night flights.
On the afternoon of Aug. 26, 2009, a combination of high temperatures, low humidity and a large quantity of tinder-dry fuel in the Angeles Forest caused a wildfire to spread quickly throughout the surrounding area. Firefighters worked tirelessly that afternoon to quell the flames. By nightfall, the fire had been all but contained after a sustained effort by helicopters and planes. The advantage was short-lived, as the flames gathered strength overnight and outran ground crews the next morning. Before it was finally extinguished, the Station fire took the lives of two firefighters, destroyed 89 homes and burned more than 160,000 acres of land across the Foothills.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found that the use of night flying aircraft might have allowed the Forest Service to suppress the Station fire on that critical first night. The report concluded that the Forest Service both failed to use all potentially available aircraft early in the blaze and needed to develop a strategy for when night missions should be flown.
The policy that prohibited USFS night flights was instituted in the 1970s following a tragic helicopter crash in the Angeles National Forest. Since that time, the Forest Service has not performed night flights itself, instead relying upon other agencies — like Los Angeles city and county fire departments — to use aircraft to douse flames at night. This works when those helicopters are available, but is a real problem when the local agencies need them for other emergencies.
Following the Station fire, the Forest Service took some steps to gradually expand night flying. This included authorizing the night use of turbine-powered single-engine aircraft, including helicopters, which had previously been prohibited. USFS also increased from three to seven the number of nonfederal agencies allowed to operate over national forest lands in Southern California. But the Forest Service failed to complete in a timely manner a nationwide study on developing its own night-flying capability.
Finally last August, the Forest Service announced that it would begin nighttime helicopter missions to battle blazes in Southern California. USFS Helicopter 531 is now stationed in the Angeles National Forest and can be deployed to quell flames near the southern part of the Los Padres National Forest, the Angeles and San Bernardino national forests, and a portion of the Cleveland National Forest.
Another dry winter across much of the West has federal fire officials concerned about a long wildfire season, and the ability of federal officials to respond will already be constrained by the sequester and its cuts to the wildland fire management program. That will mean 500 fewer firefighters, and 200,000 fewer acres receiving hazardous fuel mitigation. In the face of these challenges, renewed access to night flying is crucial, as residents near Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster can attest only too well.
We will never know with certainty if night flying could have extinguished the Station fire in those critical first hours, but I'm glad we no longer have to ask, during this fire and those to follow, whether night flying could have saved lives, homes and precious national resources.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) represents the 28th Congressional District.