The state’s firefighting service, CalFire, reached an historic turning point Monday when it announced it would allow San Diego Fire Department helicopters to drop water at night on state-controlled land in San Diego County in certain conditions.

But, while local and state fire officials were lauding the move, reader KK wanted to know one thing: What took so long?

As I pointed out in my post this morning, SDFD helicopters have been flying medical and other emergency missions at night on state-controlled land for years. That made KK mad. Here’s an extract from the e-mail she sent me this morning:

So it never had anything to do with safety then, ever. 

I don’t think I am the only one who will be angry to read this. So many people grievously impacted over a territorial peeing match! The authority who decided not to allow night flying in the Ceder Fire must be held accountable. Our system failed on so many levels.

Indeed, SDFD has also, for years, been making water drops at night within city limits and in other cities in the county where CalFire doesn’t have jurisdiction, said SDFD Deputy Chief Brian Fennessy, who heads up the department’s air operations. The department’s helicopters have only been prohibited from dropping on fires burning on state- and federal-controlled land, he said.

Fennessy said the medical and rescue missions his pilots fly at night are, ironically, often more inherently risky than nighttime water drops. For example, he said, pilots sometimes have to perform hoist rescues in parts of the county that they are unfamiliar with.

“There is far greater risk doing medical rescues and hoists compared to less complex water drops,” Fennessy said.

But Fennessy stressed that the same doesn’t apply to flying helicopters during the wind events San Diego typically experiences during large wildfires. When the region’s Santa Ana winds are gusting out of control, he said, firefighting becomes much more dangerous, even during the daytime, and is particularly risky at night.

I asked Fennessy why the state has allowed SDFD to fly risky non-firefighting missions at night for years, but hasn’t allowed firefighting at night. He blamed CalFire’s now-defunct policy.

“It’s been one of those policies that’s been there since the beginning of time,” he said.

I called CalFire Unit Chief Howard Windsor and asked him why the agency waited until September 2008, at the height of fire season, to change its policy.

Howard said he didn’t have much historical perspective on the move. He said that everything has just aligned at the agency recently, and that CalFire has finally reached a paradigm shift.

What prompted that paradigm shift? I asked. After all, the technology used in fighting fires at night hasn’t changed significantly in the last few years, Fennessy told me. And the SDFD has been inviting CalFire to view its nighttime aerial firefighting operations for years, but the agency’s never accepted the invitation, Fennessy said.

Again, Windsor said he didn’t have much historical perspective on the issue. But he said he thinks CalFire’s leadership has gradually, and — again — finally (his word), warmed to the concept of nighttime aerial firefighting.

“It had to be a top-down decision. Us saying that the world is changing out there and we’ve got to understand what those changes mean,” he said.

Windsor added that, while it’s true that the SDFD has occasionally flown rescue missions, such as medical emergencies, on state-controlled land, that’s got nothing to do with CalFire. The agency only oversees aerial firefighting on state land, he said, not over other missions like medical evacuations.


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