Editorial: Firefighting helicopter is needed at South Shore | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Editorial: Firefighting helicopter is needed at South Shore

Three weeks after the Angora fire, the Tahoe Daily Tribune spoke with Tom Pandola, a Tahoe City resident and former commander of air operations for the Los Angeles Fire Department, about why the Lake Tahoe Basin doesn’t have a helicopter to help fight wildfires.

While with the Los Angeles Fire Department, Pandola said he oversaw the department’s addition of four helicopters to its air attack for the area’s forests and rolling hills. He also said the LAFD now automatically dispatches helicopters with first ground responders during the initial report of a wildland fire.

Pandola — with 25 years experience as a firefighter and air attack chief — told us that had a firefighting helicopter been stationed at the South Shore and been called out during the initial attack against the Angora fire, it could have retarded its rapid spread.

“The bottom line is you have to put water on it as rapidly as possible, and a water helicopter would have helped,” Pandola told us on July 11. “I’m not saying it is guaranteed. I’m saying it wouldn’t have been as destructive.”

Thursday, some three months after the fire, Pandola affirmed his original statement in a Tahoe Daily Tribune story: “Our first line of defense is our local fire district. The quicker we can put the water on the fire, the better chance the firefighters on the ground are going to be able to control it quickly.”

Pandola floated an idea of having a firefighting helicopter stationed at the Lake Tahoe Airport in that Tribune story in July. The idea, in our opinion, has not gathered enough support.

Washoe County approved money to retrofit its helicopter for firefighting, and area fire officials across the basin are exploring the idea of a first-attack helicopter stationed at Truckee-Tahoe Airport. Neither region has suffered the economic hardship and loss of homes to the extent of the Angora fire, but they have had their share of wildfires.

In September, fire officials from North Shore and Truckee gathered at the Truckee-Tahoe Airport and agreed a helicopter would be a good idea for their communities.

Pandola sees two possibilities to get a South Shore firefighting helicopter off the ground: A $50 or so annual parcel tax paid for by property owners is one idea. The other is for the state to cough up the money from its fire and forestry coffers to fund a helicopter here, permanently. The hope is the Blue Ribbon commission, appointed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, will make this recommendation.

We prefer the state funding option as Plan A, and urge the blue ribbon commission to recommend this to the governors of Nevada and California. If that doesn’t pan out, we move to Plan B: a bond measure.

Now is our opportunity to preserve and protect our future and the beautiful place in which we live. To that end and assuming we will have no state funding, South Shore officials should consider placing a bond measure before voters that would secure a firefighting helicopter to be based at the South Shore.

While it has been argued that money might be better spent on improving defensible space around structures and forest fuels reduction, wildfires will still strike our area, and we must be prepared to fight them as effectively as possible.

We can’t afford another Angora fire. We feel now is the time to think in terms of the preservation of life and property and the overall growing risk wildfire will play here in the basin in the years to come. We urge the creation of a South Shore committee to look into placing a bond measure before voters that would secure a firefighting helicopter here at the South Shore if it doesn’t look like any state funding will be available to support such equipment.

It’s no longer a pocketbook issue, but an issue of life and property.

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