Parcel tax? Angora fire sparks talk of a Tahoe firefighting helicopter
Most Tahoe residents who witnessed the destructive Angora fire know high wind and dry fuel conditions helped spread it quickly. Now, some Lake Tahoe Basin residents are asking if the presence of a Tahoe-based, firefighting helicopter could have made a difference, or even saved some of the 254 homes that were destroyed.
Nancy Kerry, vice president of public affairs for the South Shore Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, said her house was close enough to see the flames from the Angora blaze. That’s when she first thought about the logic of having a helicopter stationed locally.
“Had a helicopter been there, it would have made a big difference,” Kerry said.
City Manager David Jinkens of South Lake Tahoe said he would like to see an extra line of defense added to Tahoe’s firefighting arsenal, but added fuel reduction should receive greater emphasis. Another forest expert downplayed the importance of having a helicopter based in the basin.
Spokesman Rex Norman of the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit said the Tahoe basin had several helicopters at its disposal at the height of the Angora fire.
“We have these air resources basically in our back yard,” Norman said.
But not necessarily in the basin. And that’s exactly what South Lake Tahoe needs if it hopes to stop the next Angora fire, said retired Los Angeles Fire Department air battalion chief Tom Pandola.
“The one thing that struck me when I first moved here was there was no firefighting water helicopter in the basin,” said Pandola, program manager for Lake Tahoe Airport-based CALSTAR Air Ambulance.
With 25 years experience as a firefighter, and two of those years as commander of air operations, the Los Angeles Fire Department knows air attack well. It learned its lesson by experiencing destructive fires without helicopters. Now it has four, and whenever a column of smoke is reported to 911 dispatch four helicopters are immediately sent.
While no one can ever say for sure, Pandola said there was a good chance that had a helicopter been dispatched with the first 911 call on June 24, much of the fire’s heat, intensity and spread could have been dampened by the time ground crews had arrived.
“The bottom line is you have to put water on it as rapidly as possible and a water helicopter would have helped,” he said. “I’m not saying it is guaranteed. I’m saying it wouldn’t have been as destructive.”
Other officials agree about the potential value of an air defense. Lake Tahoe Airport Director Rick Jenkins said he has been managing airports for 30 years and advises that a helicopter attack is the quickest way to keep a little fire from becoming a big fire.
From his point of view, Jenkins said the first 20 minutes are the most critical in stopping wildfires.
The big issue is expense. Placer County recently purchased a $3 million chopper for law enforcement and fire protection. Kerry and Pandola believe because the threat is growing, now is the time to consider a parcel tax to pay for a firefighting helicopter. And if not a parcel tax, then several community fundraisers to help buy one and man it for the Lake Tahoe Airport.