Helicopters Integral in Fighting Blazes
By Joe Nelson, Daily Bulletin, Staff Writer
RIALTO - The red-and-white helicopter hovered above the shimmering pond, its spinning rotor blades blowing ripples across the water.
An orange bucket suspended from the aircraft by steel cables dipped into the pond and slowly submerged as the helicopter descended.
Within seconds, San Bernardino County sheriff's pilot Chuck Abney took to the skies again.
He steered the Eurocopter AS350 B3 over the wash, swooped over a narrow, rocky dirt road and with the push of a button, released the water. It fell from the bucket in a scattered mist, coating the strip of ground below.
Deputy Al Daniel, also a pilot, stood on the ground below and monitored Abney's pass over the area south of the Lytle Creek wash that sheriff's pilots often use for water-dropping exercises.
"That was great!" Daniel mouthed into his handheld radio to the seasoned pilot of 30 years. "Good job, Chuck!"
In the last year, the Sheriff's Department has acquired five of the all-purpose Eurocopters at a cost of $2.6 million each. A sixth is expected to arrive by Aug. 28.
While the primary purpose of the helicopters is air patrol, their water-dropping capabilities have played a vital role in firefighting this season and will continue doing so, sheriff's Lt. Tom Hornsby said.
During the recent Sawtooth Complex Fire that scorched more than 62,000 acres near Yucca Valley, the helicopters assisted other aircraft by dropping thousands of gallons of water in the hottest areas of the blaze. Abney used the helicopter's advanced mapping system and FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) system to trace the footprint of the fire and pinpoint areas that were burning the hottest. The helicopters have also responded to other fires this summer in Jurupa Hills and Grand Terrace.
State-of-the-art aircraft have become instrumental to firefighting in San Bernardino County, with its steep and rugged mountain terrain that makes access for firefighters on the ground difficult. The vast expanse of desert in the Morongo Basin, combined with an assault of lightning strikes, low humidity and high winds that fanned the Sawtooth blaze, also created problems for firefighters on the ground and necessitated use of the aircraft.
The need was so great that for the first time in county history, a DC-10 jumbo jet that had been converted into an air tanker was brought in to help. It can hold 12,000 gallons of flame retardant, about 10 times what the average tanker can hold, and can drop four times the amount of retardant onto a fire in a single pass.
The five Eurocopters have replaced the Sheriff's Department's prior fleet of EC 120s. The Sheriff's Department also has two Bell UH-1H Super Huey helicopters and one Bell 212 for aerial firefighting. Each Super Huey is equipped with a 375-gallon tank for water- and retardant-dropping operations.
The Bell 212 can drop 350 gallons of water from a Bambi Bucket, a steel-framed contraption coated with vulcanized rubber that is suspended from the helicopter by steel cables.
"This is a great firefighting resource," county Fire Chief Pat Dennen said in a news release. "The helicopter will be available on initial attack and can make a difference in quickly gaining control of a fire, which ultimately can result in the saving of lives and property,"
During fire season, the Sheriff's Department contracts with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for use of one of its Super Huey helicopters and a pilot. The helicopter is housed at the CDF's Prado Camp in Chino during fire season.
Four of the Eurocopters are housed at the sheriff's aviation hangar in Rialto, while the fifth is at a satellite base in Victorville. If all goes as planned, the sixth helicopter is expected to arrive next week from American Eurocopter's manufacturing plant in Grand Prairie, Texas, Hornsby said.
When it comes to firefighting, the Eurocopters can get to water sources much faster than an air tanker, and in a matter of seconds, have a Bambi Bucket loaded with water and ready to drop.
"It'll put a good dent in a fire," sheriff's Sgt. Vince Clancy said of the Eurocopter.
The Eurocopters are capable of reaching altitudes higher than other helicopters, and are also used in swift-water rescues, search-and-rescue operations, and transport, Clancy said.
Sheriff's pilot Abney, who also flies jumbo jets for American Airlines, noted the Eurocopter AS350 B3 hit historical highs last summer when one landed atop Mount Everest.
"I've been here since 1981, and we've never had a helicopter that did everything," Abney said.