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Wednesday, June 18, 2008 | The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a recommendation from Supervisor Pam Slater Price to work toward a new era in the county’s firefighting capabilities: Aerial firefighting at night.

Currently, state firefighting agency CalFire doesn’t fly firefighting helicopters anywhere in California between dusk and dawn for safety reasons. But CalFire officials said the Board of Supervisors’ vote was exactly the catalyst they needed to begin studying the feasibility of expanding their aerial operation in San Diego County into a 24-hour engagement.

If successful, a joint nighttime aerial firefighting venture between CalFire and the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, which staffs and oversees the county’s aerial firefighting operation, could serve as a model for the state’s firefighting efforts and could be replicated throughout California, said Battalion Chief Ray Chaney, who is in charge of air operations for CalFire in San Diego.

“We could take this statewide,” Chaney said. “The relationship we have in San Diego with the Sheriff’s Department is really the tip of the spear for our agency.”

During San Diego’s often-catastrophic wildfires, the ability to fight the fires from the air has become an indispensable asset for firefighting agencies. But, in the past, CalFire’s helicopters have been grounded with the setting sun, often as fires continued to rage overnight. The ability to fight fires at night would allow the region’s aircraft to continuously back up firefighting crews on the ground who usually work 24 hours a day during wildfires.

CalFire’s deputy chief of fire operations, Bill Payne, who was in San Diego on Tuesday to train local helicopter pilots from the Sheriff’s Department, said there are numerous hurdles — both financial and operational — that CalFire and the county government will have to surmount before grandiose plans become solid reality. He struck a cautious tone Tuesday.

“We’re going to give them a laundry list of things that need to be accomplished in order to make this happen,” Payne said. “We’re not going to say ‘No, you can’t do it,’ outright, we’re going to say ‘This is what you need.’”

Top of the list of stumbling blocks is the fact that the county would have to invest in at least one twin-engine helicopter, which fire officials said is essential equipment for nighttime aerial firefighting. Such an aircraft could cost as much as $12 million total.

The county’s total current annual aerial firefighting budget is about $1.4 million.

A twin-engine helicopter is essential for nighttime firefighting, Payne said, because the aircraft needs to be able to fly to a safe landing spot if one of the engines fails. During the daytime, a helicopter pilot has other options to land safely because he or she can look for a suitable open space to land, something the pilot can’t do in the pitch black of night, Payne said

Add to that the costs for training, additional equipment like expensive night-vision systems, and the additional staffing required to run a 24-hour operation, and the concept of a county nighttime aerial firefighting program is still a long way from becoming a reality, Payne said.

“We just had our first meeting with the county — today,” he said.

But Lt. David McNary, who oversees the county’s aerial support detail, said he hopes San Diego can capitalize on what he said is a very effective relationship between San Diego County and CalFire.

McNary said the Sheriff’s Department owns, operates and staffs the county’s two firefighting-equipped helicopters and is aided in its firefighting efforts by CalFire captains, who oversee the region’s aerial firefighting. CalFire has responsibility for firefighting on and over state land, and McNary said the county and the agency have a long history of working together.

If the county isn’t able to fund the purchase of a new bells-and-whistles firefighting helicopter capable of nighttime firefighting, there’s also the possibility of leasing aircraft to use in nighttime training exercises or possibly even working with the San Diego Police Department — one of only three agencies nationwide that flies firefighting helicopters at night — to train, McNary said.

For the moment, McNary said, he and other county officials, working with CalFire, are simply tasked with researching and formulating a plan that the Board of Supervisors can consider.

“It’s really out of our hands. We’re willing to do this with the proper equipment and protocol put together, but ultimately, it’s going to be a money issue,” he said.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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