Precision nighttime flying was crucial to halting fire

Times Staff Writer

Hour after hour, Scott Bowman flew into smoke and darkness, piloting his Fire One helicopter over towering flames, then swooping in low as a gull to bombard them with salvos of water.

The daring nighttime work of Bowman and his fellow Los Angeles Fire Department pilots is largely credited with preventing the Griffith Park blaze from jumping darkened ridges and charging into homes that had been evacuated by moonlight.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 12, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Griffith Park fire: A caption with Thursday’s Section A coverage of the Griffith Park brush fire said the photo showed firefighters working a hot spot in the Cedar Grove area. The firefighters were making their way to the Dante’s View area.

“I’m exhausted,” Bowman said Wednesday after nearly 14 hours in the sooty skies, repeatedly dousing the fire line as it advanced on backyards in the Los Feliz area and threatened storied attractions such as the Griffith Park merry-go-round.


“There was just so much smoke up there,” said Bowman, who made more than 100 solo runs in his Bell 412, dodging power lines, treetops and similar hazards that keep some fire agencies from flying after dark.

Bowman dumped 360 gallons each time, often with pinpoint precision that depended entirely on his naked eye and the sort of instinct that comes from years of drills.

The flames were so intense in places that the water turned instantly to scalding steam. Upsurges of fire-spawned wind tossed the Bell as if it were a raft on rough seas.

“You can feel the heat, and you’re getting bounced around,” said Bowman, 45. “You’re in a tight area, and visibility can get real difficult ... like to the nose of the aircraft.”

But after two five-hour shifts Tuesday and overnight, and a 3 1/2 -hour shift later Wednesday, all Bowman could do was smile, at least between yawns.

“You hit the fire, you see it go out, that’s exciting,” he said during a breather at the department’s air base at Van Nuys Airport. “And waking up the next morning knowing you didn’t lose any homes, it’s just nice.”

The city sent three Bell 412s and a command helicopter into the battle, while the county Fire Department dispatched two of its big Firehawks, which carry 1,000 gallons of water, and another Bell 412.

All night long, evacuees and other anxious residents watched as the helicopters darted in and out of the horizon-blurring banks of dense smoke, unleashing their giant curtains of water.

Down below, crews labored on the slopes with simpler tools: shovels and hoses. They carved firebreaks and arced streams of water and foam at flames that crept within 100 yards of houses.

And like the air teams, the firefighters on the ground contended with shifting winds that lofted embers beyond the defense perimeters, touching off brush in distant canyons.

“Fires are spotting behind the fire line,” said Battalion Chief Patrick Shanley, who was directing a post-midnight attack on flames that fanned through stands of oaks bordering a Griffith Park maintenance yard. The choppers clattered overhead.

“They do an outstanding job,” Shanley said.

Bowman hails from a family of L.A. city firefighters; his grandfather signed up in 1926, his father in 1951. Bowman himself has 27 years with the department, the last seven with the elite helicopter squad, whose rigorous training regimen weeds out many applicants.

On Tuesday, Bowman made his first run soon after the fire broke out in the early afternoon. The day became a seemingly endless cycle of drops and refills, as he returned 10 to 15 times an hour for more water at two hydrant-equipped helipads.

A commander directed Bowman and the other pilots to hot spots, careful to keep them out of one another’s way, especially as night fell.

The radio traffic buzzed in Bowman’s helmet as he flew through, above and sometimes below the smoke, watching for power stanchions. “You look for the stanchions, because the power lines can be ‘invisible’ -- an optical illusion,” he said.

At one point, Bowman drew perilously near the stanchions while making drops above the merry-go-round. The lines were just above him as he navigated under a rising wall of smoke.

“I’m thinking, ‘I rode that carousel as a kid.’ I didn’t want to see that go up,” he said.

It didn’t.

But then the fire took a turn for the worse on the Los Feliz side of the park. Evacuations began as ash and embers rained onto streets and rooftops. The helicopters began emptying their tanks closer and closer to homes, the water dappling car windshields.

“The fire crested that hill with some pretty long flame lengths, and we had to get in there and stop it,” Bowman said. “It was spotting way out in front.”

Nailing the flames requires a skill that is as much touch as technical. A miss results when the pilot flies in too fast or too slow.

Unloading the water too high renders it an ineffective spray. Come in too low, and the downwash from the rotor blades can spread the flames.

A good speed is typically 40 to 60 knots, and the optimum height usually about 75 feet, Bowman said.

When the target is in sight, the pilot punches the button on the cyclic, or the stick, which opens one, two or three hydraulic doors on the water tank. This was a three-door fire, Bowman said.

A mirror outside the ship’s chin bubble, the window at the pilot’s feet, offered him a view of the falling water.

Bowman said the smoke was so thick and the night so black that he couldn’t be sure exactly how many of his drops found their mark. But the still-standing homes suggest his aim was true enough.

“Very gratifying,” he said.