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Forest Service to allow aerial firefighting at night

Policy change announced 3 years after fatal Station Fire

Posted: August 16, 2012 6:36 p.m.
Updated: August 16, 2012 6:36 p.m.

The U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday it will permit agency helicopters to attack wildfires at night in Southern California, a significant policy shift that follows complaints about its response to the deadly 2009 Station Fire.

The night-flying program will begin modestly by next year with the use of a single helicopter, stationed in Angeles National Forest, where the Station Fire killed two firefighters, destroyed 89 homes and blackened 250 square miles, becoming the biggest wildfire in Los Angeles County history.

The fire circled the eastern part of the Santa Clarita Valley and destroyed several homes in Acton.

After the huge blaze, the Forest Service was sharply criticized by residents who lost homes. Politicians clamored for changes, and government records opened questions about whether firefighting aircraft could have been ordered and deployed more quickly, including at night.

Previous to Thursday’s announced policy change, the Forest Service restricted aerial firefighting operations to daylight hours only.

Thursday’s announcement means county helicopter pilots in particular will get some much-needed assistance, one Fire Department captain says.

“We do applaud the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to increase nighttime firefighting capabilities,” Capt. Mark Savage said Thursday.

“Any increase in our capabilities, either on the ground or in the air, will increase the chance of stopping wildfires,” he said.

“It’s certainly a good thing for our three chopper pilots,” Savage said. “These pilots are the most well-trained in the world and they go in wearing night vision goggles, often flying into the most dangerous conditions — low level flying, in smoky conditions, facing unknown hazards.

“These are very dangerous situations.”

The long-awaited news was warmly received by Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who has vociferously called on the national forest service to resume its nighttime firefighting program.

“We are pleased that the Forest Service has responded favorably to our continuous appeals for the policy to be changed,” he said.

Others who hailed the decision included Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita.

Beginning next year, the U.S. Forest Service will contract a helicopter capable of fighting wildfires at night in a move to strengthen the agency’s capability to suppress fires and better protect firefighters and communities in Southern California, forestry officials said.

“We have made this important decision very carefully,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

“We have studied night operations from every angle — risk management, business and operations — and we have concluded we can conduct night operations safely and effectively.”

McKeon praised the decision.

“It is gravely important that we learn from past fires to make the changes necessary to help our firefighters in the future. We appreciate the efforts to address changes to policy that are needed to save lives.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.




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