unedited Tahoe Mt. News Sept. story
Firefighting helicopter issue up in the air
By Kathryn Reed
No one disagrees that helicopters are a vital component when it comes to fighting wildland fires. But no clear consensus exists about whether one should be permanently stationed in the Lake Tahoe Basin during fire season.
The U.S. Forest Service has two helicopters at Big Hill in the Eldorado National Forest near Ice House Lake – which is about a 10-minute flight to the basin. One is north of here in the Tahoe National Forest and two are stationed in Minden.
CalFire has helicopters in Columbia and Vina, which is north of Chico. It has two fixed-wing aircraft in Grass Valley.
Two anonymous residents in Incline Village have donated about $30,000 to the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District to have a helicopter on standby during fire season.
Washoe County commissioners in July agreed to buy a tank that could haul 350 gallons of water via the sheriff’s department’s Huey. Fire agencies in that county are looking at ways to share the cost of using the helicopter when needed.
North Tahoe Fire District, which is on the California side, plans to host a meeting this month with regional fire officials to discuss the need for a firefighting helicopter in the basin.
It is likely the bi-state commission appointed by Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Gibbons will also address the helicopter conundrum. The commission first met Sept. 10 and will come out with recommendations March 21.
“There’s going to be a lot of fact finding. Determination of future needs will be flushed out by the commission. We won’t weigh-in on a helicopter in the basin until the commission is allowed to do its work,” said Mary Huggins, the CalFire division chief stationed in South Lake Tahoe.
CalFire’s director and the state fire marshal are part of the commission.
It is the Forest Service’s belief that a helicopter is not needed in the basin because of the proximity of other aircraft. A minimum of two are always available to be called upon by the Tahoe office.
“I think it would be a wasted resource. A helicopter is like all federal resources. It doesn’t sit in one place. They go where they are needed,” said John Washington, fuels battalion chief for the local Forest Service office. “If the day came, would the helicopter be sitting there? I don’t know.”
Three types of helicopters are employed by the federal agency. The largest is like a Black Hawk which has a capacity to haul 2,000 gallons of water.
The Forest Service contracts with private companies for access to helicopters and then pays them an additional hourly rate when they are used. Washington admits money is an issue when talk turns to a helicopter in the basin, though he doesn’t know what the bill is for leasing aircraft.
Tom Pandola, CalSTAR program manager, says is would cost about $240,000 for a 60-day helicopter lease or $360,000 for 90 days. South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Lorenzo Gigliotti said it’s about $800,000 to lease a copter for a fire season.
As a former commander of the air operations with the Los Angeles Fire Department and employee of the Southern California agency for 25 years, Pandola speaks from experience and not as a CalSTAR employee.
“My experience is the best and fastest way to put water on a wildland urban interface is with a helicopter. There are very few things in the world that I have an opinion on that is 100 percent black and white. A helicopter is the one thing I know we need,” Pandola said. “I’m talking about preventing a disaster in the first place. By the time the Forest Service has the ability to mobilize forces we are going to lose 200 to 300 homes and have environmental damage.”
He points to the Gondola Fire in 2002 that was first spotted by CalSTAR crews as an example of a fire that should never have grown to more than 600 acres.
“It took so long for firefighters to get to it. It had time to get going and head uphill,” Pandola said. “Eventually a lot of helicopters were on it. Had they been there right away it would have been a half acre.”
Pandola has taken his cause to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board, the radio and RSN to promote staging a helicopter at Lake Tahoe Airport.
“I made the suggestion that TRPA pay for it or part of it. What better way to protect the Lake than put out fires when they are small,” Pandola said.
Although TRPA just created a fire committee whose first meeting will be Sept. 19, spokeswoman Julie Regan doesn’t anticipate helicopters will be on the agenda but instead talks will focus on items like defensible space.
Not every fire is conducive to an immediate air assault. Some would say the Angora Fire fits that description.
“I feel pretty comfortable between wind, weather and fire behavior that the air assets were here relatively quickly, but it was difficult to fly in,” said South Lake’s Gigliotti of the June 24 disaster. “It was not a response issue. It was fire conditions and weather that day.”
At the peak of Angora, 14 helicopters and six planes took to the skies to combat what became a nearly 3,100-acre desecration.
“When you have a fire you want to hit it as fast as possible and suppress it,” said Mike Brown, fire chief for North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District. “Either you pay for a fire at the beginning or afterward. (A helicopter) would be insurance. To have it here in the basin would make people more comfortable and when an incident does take place everyone feels safer.”