South Shore ponders how to get a firefighting helicopter
As aerial firefighting resources increase for one North Shore community, a firefighting helicopter dedicated to the entire Lake Tahoe Basin is an idea that has yet to gain traction.
On Aug. 14, Washoe County Commissioners approved $162,586 for the retrofitting of a Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Huey helicopter with a belly fire attack system. A tank will be attached to the underbody of the helicopter that is filled through a suction hose that drops down into a water source, according to Kurt Latipow, Washoe County Fire Services Coordinator.
The U.S. Forest Service, CalFire and Nevada Department of Forestry maintain aircraft within striking distance of the Lake Tahoe Basin, but the aircraft are utilized throughout their jurisdictions and may not be immediately available to the basin during a wildfire.
Washoe County commissioners approved the helicopter as an immediate response aircraft for Washoe County.
“If we can get air resources coming with water on the fires quick enough, we can limit the number of acres burned, limit the threat to life and property, and reduce the cost of fighting the fire,” Latipow said Wednesday.
The retrofit is under way and will likely be ready for operation by late October, but how it will be used in the Lake Tahoe Basin outside of Washoe County is yet to be determined.
“Right now, that’s unknown,” Latipow said Tuesday. “We’ll really be working through those decisions before we get deep into next fire season.”
A similar retrofit is unlikely at the South Shore because neither El Dorado or Douglas County sheriffs’ offices have a helicopter of their own.
Leasing a helicopter through the fire season has been an idea pitched to the Governing Board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the recently assembled bi-state fire commission by Tom Pandola, a Tahoe City resident and former commander of air operations for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
While complimentary of the forest service for the abundance of firefighting resources they maintain, Pandola said local agencies may be able to more quickly respond to a fire during its critical early stages.
The extra minutes could be critical during dry and windy conditions.
“Our first line of defense is our local fire district,” Pandola said Wednesday. “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.”
A quick-response helicopter dedicated to the basin has garnered support, but has yet to find a sponsor willing to fund the venture.
“I’ve always thought we’ve needed one here,” Lake Tahoe Airport Manager Rick Jenkins said Monday. While calling the idea “completely feasible,” Jenkins noted “the biggest problem is, who is going to fund it?”
Contracting a helicopter crew throughout the fire season could add up at roughly $4,000 a day, Pandola said.
He sees two possibilities to get the helicopter off the ground: a basin-wide fee or state funding through recommendations by the fire commission or the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
Although supportive of the concept, obtaining a Tahoe basin firefighting helicopter would be outside the TRPA’s budget and mission, according to Julie Regan, spokeswoman for the planning agency.
“I think TRPA would definitely support any efforts by emergency professionals to obtain such a helicopter, but we don’t have any kind of funding that could be available for purchasing or leasing one,” Regan said Wednesday.