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Southland fire departments get additional helicopters for wildfire season

A CH-47 chinook helitanker hovers above the Arch Beach Heights fire road for Laguna Beach.
A CH-47 chinook helitanker hovers over the new HeloPod water refilling system during demonstration on the Arch Beach Heights fire road for the city of Laguna Beach in November 2020.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

LOS ALAMITOS (CNS) - A 180-day program providing additional firefighting helicopters to departments in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties begins today.

The Quick Reaction Force program includes two Boeing Chinook CH-47 helitankers, one based at Van Nuys Air Tanker Base and the other at the Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos, and a Sikorsky S-61 helitanker, based in Ventura County.

The CH-47s are considered the world’s largest fire suppression, retardant-dropping helicopters with the capacity to carry 3,000 gallons. Unlike other firefighting helicopters, they have the ability to fly at night.

“That’s a lot of firefighting power, if you will, when you can drop 3,000 gallons of water onto a brush fire. It’s an important tool,” Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Thanh Nguyen told City News Service. “We’re grateful that we will be able to use it. It’s impressive.”

The program is being financed with nearly $18 million from Southern California Edison.

Millions of residents in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties are among the most vulnerable living within wildfire-prone areas, fire experts said.

Extreme drought conditions and dry vegetation, along with predictions of a dire wildfire season ahead, led to the formation of the QRF program.

A CH-47 chinook helitanker drops water on the brush.
A CH-47 chinook helitanker drops water on the brush during a presentation of the new HeloPod Dip Tank water refilling system for the city of Laguna Beach in November 2020.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“Generally, when we get a wildfire, it’s accompanied with strong winds,” Nguyen said. "[Helicopter] pilots have a lot to contend with.”

The QRF program contracts exclusively for up to 180 days with Coulson Aviation to combine aerial firefighting resources, pre-assembled in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, with a mobile retardant base and hover-filling tanks.

The helicopters’ capabilities were demonstrated on Monday at the training base in Los Alamitos, where OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy described the speedy firefighting response that will be possible for fire incident commanders calling for deployment, who can say, “Get me the QRF.”

“One’s coming from Orange, one’s coming from L.A., one’s coming from Ventura County,” Fennessy told KTLA5. “We’re going to jump on that fire, hopefully beat it down before it becomes a problem.”

For the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the CH-47s will enhance the department’s air operations fleet, which includes five Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks and five Bell 412 helicopters, in addition to a seasonal contract with Quebec for the 90-day lease of two CL-415 SuperScoopers expected to arrive in early September, officials said.

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