Agency crosses state line to provide faster air response to future fires in Tahoe

Kris Kirkland leans over from the hanger bench at the Minden-Tahoe Airport and looks out the open helicopter bay. On clear days, the pilot can see the burn scars from two or three fires in plain sight.

“That Tamarack fire,” he says, “just destroyed a beautiful landscape.” It’s a reminder why Kirkland and his helicopter crew with the Nevada Division of Forestry are so vested in protecting the land.

But typically the fires this helitack crew fight don’t get big enough to have a widely discussed name or garner them large praise. And that’s exactly how they want it.

“They’re not looking for recognition. If they did, that fire got too big.”

That’s according to NDF’s Deputy Administrator Eric Antle who says the award for this team is in being the first to the fire, getting there fast, and keeping the fire so small, the general public has no idea it ever happened.

Kirkland describes them as one of the “special forces” in fire. The helitack teams consists of about six members and one supervisor who get transported to the fire by helicopter. Once the crew is on the ground, they work to fight the fire from below while the helicopter assists with its water bucket from above.

A Nevada Division of Forestry helicopter drops a crew at a fire. This helitack crew is now more readily available to the Tahoe basin through a new interstate agreement made with Cal Fire in the Spring of 2023. Provided / Nevada Division of Forestry
Huey crew drop

He can confidently say his team has suppressed the majority of one or two acre incidents in the area, keeping them from becoming large multi-thousand acre fires.

The tactical team of highly skilled individuals Antle says, “can’t get any faster.”

It’s a critical asset to getting a jump on fires and an asset they’ve now made more readily available to the Tahoe Basin through a new interstate agreement with Cal Fire.

Available during a ‘perfect storm’

The agreement allows NDF to place one of their helicopters at the Lake Tahoe Airport in South Lake on high fire risk days. Kirkland says that’s when the fire weather forecast puts the burn index in the 90th percentile. For those more akin to Smokey Bear signs, it’s the blaring orange and red emblems on the side of the road, saying “very high” and “extreme.”

It’s on these days that the temperatures are high, humidity is low, and other components from fuel, to a spread factor could potentially lead to a very damaging fire. Kirkland refers to it as the “perfect storm” of elements.

Another component, he says, are red flag warnings.

Anyone who’s been out on the lake in a kayak or paddleboard knows the power of red flag warning winds when they get caught in them. Even more, how fast their craft can move when going with that wind. Assistant Fire Chief Brian Newman with Cal Fire says “think of the fire doing the same thing.”

That’s why Newman says a helicopter in the Tahoe Basin can make all the difference with initial attacks on a fire, especially on those extreme days.

Now, this is all contingent on whether Cal Fire has an aerial asset already in the basin. Newman says Cal Fire does have a helicopter contracted in Truckee, so on days that it’s there and the fire danger is high, they typically wouldn’t call NDF.

But NDF’s Antle says due to nationwide shortages, the Truckee aircraft likely won’t be as available. It’s on those days when NDF can step in.

Cal Fire says they often rely on a helicopter stationed in Pollock Pines as well, but a helicopter in the basin speeds up the response time by about five to 10 minutes.

For NDF, this agreement speeds things up as well. Their huey helicopter can cover Minden to South Lake in about 7 minutes. But Kirkland says realistically, it would take them 15 to 20 minutes. That’s because it takes time for the crew to get the information and get ready.

There’s also an element at play before a call reaches them, dispatch. NDF’s Antle says the time it takes for dispatch in Minden to get the call adds valuable time. The dispatch chain gets shortened when the aircraft is already stationed at the Lake Tahoe airport, leading to a quicker response time in an area Kirkland describes as “very hypersensitive and critical…with a lot of people and a lot of homes.”

Chief Pilot Kris Kirkland, NDF, stands next to a UH-1H Huey on Oct. 16, 2023. The helicopter is one of three available to the Tahoe Basin on high fire risk days. Katelyn Welsh / Tahoe Daily Tribune
Kris Kirkland, Chief Pilot, NDF

A few critical minutes

Some may wonder just how critical an extra five to 10 minutes is when it comes to fire.

According to Cal Fire’s Newman, it isn’t as critical in the Sierras on days when the winds are low, saying lighting strikes on a tree might smolder for bit, but they can typically get it under control.

On red flag warning days, he says that extra 10 minutes can make all the difference, “That lighting strike or that small fire rolling much much quicker in that amount of time, you know, exponentially larger under those high winds.”

He equates it to the difference of being able to contain a fire and “one getting out of control and being so much more damaging.”

According to NDF, it’s their job to get to a fire as quickly as possible, so this agreement helps them do that even faster.

Kirkland says if his crew can stop a fire from progressing, they’ve done their job, “and hopefully we can stop it before it gets to the point where it’s an Angora, or a Tamarack, or Dixie, or any of those.”

He says from the perspective of homeowners in the basin, “five to seven minutes is probably pretty critical.”

No silver bullet

Although this new arrangement increases fire readiness, both agencies say it comes with some limitations.

“The thing about aircraft in wildland firefighting,” says Newman, “it’s not the silver bullet.”

He says it’s just one of the many tools Cal Fire uses for an aggressive initial attack.

It’s on those extremely windy days when the helicopters are sometimes needed the most, that they potentially can’t help at all. Newman points to the Angora fire as an example of wind speeds being a limiting factor for helicopters.

Chief Pilot Kirkland says each helicopter has its own restrictions when it comes to wind. Two of their hueys can’t start if the winds speeds are over 30 knots. That’s around 35 miles per hour.

Their other huey, the Eagle, is not subject to this wind speed limitation.

When it comes to sending a helicopter, which type they send really just depends on which one is available in the maintenance rotation, Kirkland says. It could be either.

According to the National Weather Service, days with those prolonged wind speeds aren’t too common for Tahoe in the summer months. Meteorologist Mark Deutschendorf estimates no more than 10 days in a four month period, with thunderstorms as an exception and variable. Kirkland’s piloting experience leads him to estimate it’s actually more than that, saying more localized measurements could read differently. 

As for how red flag warnings play in, Deutschendorf says they actually elicit a range of wind speeds and other factors, from humidity and vegetation moisture, to qualify, but wind speeds at the lower range, won’t keep a helicopter from taking off with the above limitations.

Another factor that can keep helicopters grounded is the visibility. Kirkland says smoke for example, can potentially halt aerial operations.

Another contingency factor in the agreement is it cannot get in the way of NDF’s availability to their own jurisdiction. Kirkland says this shouldn’t be too big of an issue. Even with a helicopter in Tahoe, he says they’d still have the capacity to respond to something in their territory.

If a large incident or many occur in Nevada that require all their aircraft, the agreement provides an understanding that NDF can leave to respond.

Cal Fire says when a large fire enters the basin, as the community saw a couple of years ago, one more helicopter isn’t going to make a big difference. He says by the time the Caldor fire entered the basin, they had already increased their aircraft numbers in preparation.

Had the Caldor fire started in the Basin, however, he says that’s when it would have made an impact, making for a speedier initial aggressive attack.

NDF helicopter drops water on a fire. Provided / Nevada Division of Forestry
Huey helicopter

‘A magical line across timber’

Both agencies say these collaborations are crucial to stay on top of fires around state lines and jurisdiction boundaries, where they would otherwise slow resource movement.

“Wildfires don’t know the jurisdiction,” says Antle of NDF, “We’re talking about a magical line across timber.”

It’s across this magical line that Cal Fire’s Newman says it’s important to maintain the same level of efficiency on an initial attack. This agreement allows them to do that.

One speed bump that delays initial attacks near these boundaries has always been paperwork, needing the administrative green light before take off.

Antle says the two agencies have always had an agreement that allowed NDF to respond with resources, but only within a 25 mile limit over state lines.

Both agencies have seen multiple devastating fires in recent years and determined the need for increased aircraft flexibility beyond that 25 mile mark.

Kirkland says it takes care of the paperwork ahead of time, so “that we don’t have to jump through paperwork hassle or paperwork rounds once an event occurs.” 

Cal Fire’s Newman says he wants the public to know that state, federal and local agencies are all working in conjunction “almost unseen” to provide the best force they can. This helicopter is just “one more tool in the toolbox” to make that happen.

And with this agreement they’re now clear for take off, administration wise.

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