The U.S. Forest Service, in a major policy change prompted by the devastating 2009 Station fire, has a helicopter ready to begin nighttime operations to battle wildfires, federal lawmakers told The Times.
A specially trained crew and helicopter are ready to fight fires this week across the Los Angeles area, said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
The Forest Service had imposed a ban on nighttime firefighting operations since the 1970s for safety and cost reasons, according to federal officials.
The agency decided to scrap that policy after reports by The Times and subsequent congressional inquiries into the tactics and strategies used by the Forest Service during the Station fire, the largest in Los Angeles County history. Two firefighters died in the blaze.
Schiff and Feinstein said the use of nighttime air operations is critical given the potential for this fire season to be devastating. The National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates federal wildfire responses, had forecast "above normal potential for significant fire activity" in Southern California and other parched areas of the West.
"Adding this capability will give us a better chance in future wildfires to protect residents' houses, precious natural resources and, most importantly, lives," Schiff said.
Feinstein said nighttime air operations are an "important tool" in stopping wildfires before they rage out of control.
"As California grows hotter and dryer, we must make every effort to quickly contain wildfires, and nighttime aerial firefighting is a big part of that effort," Feinstein said.
The Times reported that the Forest Service misjudged the threat posed by Station fire the first day after it broke out in the Angeles National Forest. The agency reduced its attack that night and did not fill a commander's orders for a heavy air assault early the next morning. Experts have said a run of helicopters after dark might have helped firefighters contain the fire before it raged out of control.
In a 2011 report, the General Accountability Office concluded that the Forest Service failed to use all potentially available aircraft early in the Station fire and needed to develop a strategy to battle blazes at night.
Other agencies, including the Los Angeles city and county fire departments, routinely use helicopters to make nighttime attacks during brush fires.
Forest Service officials said the agency began training pilots, crew and support staff for night operations in August.
"The reintroduction of Forest Service night helicopter firefighting operations in Southern California further establishes the agency's commitment to protect lives and property in the region," said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
"California has already experienced wildfires this season and is projected to continue to have a challenging summer. Night flying operations will provide an aggressive agency initial attack while better ensuring public safety, minimizing overall fire costs and lessening impacts to communities."