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Full-time firefighting helicopter would not be cost-effective

Ken Crawford

All the talk about Lake Tahoe needing a firefighting helicopter is amusing me. As the discussions in various editorials and letters indicate, getting resources to fires is paramount to successful suppression. This is the goal of the fire-suppression resources in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The implied consensus, I am reading and hearing, in the undercurrents in the fire community is: A firefighting helicopter can solve our problems and the Angora fires of the future will not happen. That is wishful thinking.

Fire behavior is driven by three elements: Fuel, weather and topography. All three of these elements played into the Angora incident with each element contributing to create “the big one” we have been talking about for 30 years. I doubt a helicopter would have changed the fire behavior on June 24 unless it was over the fire within minutes after being sighted. By the time the dispatch came in, that fire was already rolling. A helicopter adds on another five to seven minutes after being dispatched, doing run-up and checklist before it is off the ground. When fire agencies suggest the need for a helicopter, I want to know what size or type.

Are the agencies asking for a Type 1 (large) helicopter with just water-dropping capabilities? These come with different capabilities ranging from 700- to 1,500-gallon delivery capabilities — on a good day at this elevation, with a cost anywhere from $11,000 to $25,000 a day, plus flight time. Do they want a Type 2 (medium) helicopter that would carry firefighters and then go get water? That comes cheaper but only delivers about 240 to 280 gallons per drop, and has severe limitations flying over populated areas with an external bucket.

During the fire season the Lake Tahoe Basin has two helicopters located just outside the Basin on the California side. They usually have a 10 to 15 minute response time. They are the “Type 2 and deliver firefighters, and then put on a bucket and drop water. To be clear, they are used on a first response basis and may be busy when a need is here.

I worked in wildland fire suppression for 30 years. My last 20 years were at Lake Tahoe. I have observed that, in normal years, the critical fire behavior elements of fuels, weather and topography, line up in perfect conditions to make an Angora fire storm possible about three to five days a year. The other days, while fires are dangerous they are controllable with the resources we have.

I don’t think spending a million dollars per fire season, for a full-time helicopter, is good use of our tax money. I suggest the agencies consider ways to pre-position a large aerial resource nearby, on days when fire weather is critical. Even then, there is no guarantee the additional resource would be enough. Look at Southern California during the Santa Ana winds. They have the largest concentration of fire suppression resources in the world and still experience catastrophic events.

During my career I worked in many fire aviation positions. I was an Air Tactical Group Supervisor, Assistant Helicopter Manager, and Helicopter rappeller. Aerial resources are effective. However they don’t work very well when you have very windy conditions.

Wind and the conditions of our fuels are big contributors to extreme fire behavior. We can’t do anything about the weather; let’s put those millions into the fuels program, and prevention, not a helicopter that is going to sit 99 percent of the time.

— Ken Crawford is a Tahoma resident.


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