Helicopter Crews Wary of Wind, Power Lines as They Battle Brush Fires

Times Staff Writer

Dan Shea, who flew helicopters for the Army during the war in Vietnam, this week has been in the pilot's seat fighting a different kind of battle above the flaming hillsides north of Moorpark.

"The most dangerous part is dropping into the canyons in turbulent wind," said Shea, 37. "And, in this part of the country, there are power lines all over." They can wrap around the central rotor mast and cause a crash.

On Wednesday, the Tapo Canyon fire was on its last legs, with only a few small hot spots springing up. But for Shea and other crewmen of two Ventura County water-dropping helicopters, there was no rest.

"I'm supposed to be off today," Shea shouted as one of the Vietnam War-vintage UH-1 "Huey" helicopters roared off nearby, leaving in its wake a cloud of dust and flying debris.

Lots of Work

Shea, two fellow pilots and several other crewmen, members of Ventura County's Public Safety Aviation Unit, have been working every daylight hour since Monday, when four brush fires erupted around the county, threatening property and lives.

The unit, jointly run by the county Sheriff's and Fire departments, has three Huey helicopters. It conducts firefighting and medical evacuations for the Fire Department and helps in police work, such as searching for suspects, for the Sheriff's Department.

This week, though, two of the helicopters have been dedicated solely to fighting the four fires: the Ferndale blaze north of the cities of Ventura and Santa Paula, the Box Canyon and Hummingbird Hill fires on Simi Valley's east end and the Tapo Canyon blaze, which began north of Simi Valley and moved west toward Moorpark.

One Craft Grounded

The third helicopter has been grounded since last week for routine repairs.

Shea and pilots Dave Heald and Chris Spangenberg, all Vietnam veterans who work full time for the county, drop 340-gallon loads of water from tanks attached underneath each helicopter.

The craft were reloaded at a landing pad at the Rocketdyne plant south of Simi Valley.

On Wednesday, the pilots landed at a makeshift pad in an open field behind the Litton Systems office in Moorpark, and dropped water on the dying Tapo Canyon fire.

Mike De Los Santos, 32, a sheriff's deputy who acts as a spotter in cockpits, said the missions can be "total excitement." But flying between steep canyon walls through thick, acrid smoke can be dangerous as well, the crews said.

Power Line Danger

Three years ago, however, the county equipped its helicopters with "wire strikes," which can cut a power line before it damages a craft. But a cluster of power lines could still down a helicopter.

A county pilot was killed eight years ago when his craft struck power lines, Shea said.

The helicopters are capable of dropping water on a fire every six to 10 minutes, and fly about 10 hours each day when there are brush fires, said Lt. Bob Gockel, who manages the unit for the Sheriff's Department.

"In brush fires, these tools are invaluable," he said. "Nothing else will do the job."

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