El Toro air station gets second wind as helicopter base during wildfires

A Siller Helicopters' Sikorsky CH-54A Skycrane lands at El Toro.
A Siller Helicopters’ Sikorsky CH-54A Skycrane lands after water drops on the Silverado-Blue Ridge Fires at former MCAS El Toro Oct. 27, 2020.

(Damon J. Duran)

Helicopter crews are once again flying into former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. Rather than training for war, aircraft take on fuel and water to defend Orange County residents from another threat — wildfires.

Since at least 2017, the Orange County Fire Authority has used a stretch of runway as an emergency aviation base to refill as many as 15 helicopters with fuel and water closer to fire lines in South County.

“El Toro is a perfect central location that has really good infrastructure,” Orange County Fire Authority pilot Joshua Murphy said. “We can get fuel there, people there and assets there to insure that quick turnaround of helicopters.”

Every minute an aircraft isn’t dropping water gives fire time to spread, Murphy said.

Last year, helicopters landed on a stretch of runway north of Marine Way. That runway has since been demolished to make way for the construction of a new Wild Rivers waterpark. Irvine still owns a former flight line off Cadence and Pusan Way that was once trafficked by Marine Corps aircraft, specifically CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters.

Hangars emblazoned with the names and insignia of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadrons 163 and 164 still look down on the flight line where fire engines now stage.

This fire season, it’s not clear how many helicopters will be able to land on the flight line — primarily because it’s much smaller than the former runway — but the Great Park will continue to serve as a staging area for firefighters, Battalion Chief Cheyne Maule said.

“For helicopter operations, it will be limited there but we will still use parts of the Great Park,” Maule said.

The Quick Reaction Force program includes two Boeing Chinook CH-47 helitankers, considered the world’s largest fire suppression, retardant-dropping helicopters with the capacity to carry 3,000 gallons.

Last month, the Irvine City Council took no action on approving the Southern California Veteran’s Cemetery. The flight line is within the so-called ARDA site that is favored by some Orange County veterans as a cemetery site.

Five Point Communities, the developer of Great Park Neighborhoods, has no current intention to acquire the property from Irvine.

“We are not, at this point, planning or discussing any sort of future use for that land,” said Steve Churm, a spokesperson for Five Points Communities.

The Fire Authority is able to activate the Great Park for air operations during emergencies thanks to a mutual aid agreement with Irvine, Acting Orange County Emergency Management Director Michelle Anderson said.

Orange County emergency planners are studying alternative staging sites, including the OC Fair & Event Center, universities and larger church campuses throughout the county, Anderson said. Irvine Regional Park has also been used as an emergency helicopter base but had to be evacuated during the Canyon 2 fire in 2017.

“There’s definitely a special understanding of what the base meant and continues to mean for Orange County,” Anderson said.

After 13 years as a U.S. Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter pilot, Murphy separated from the service last August and joined the Fire Authority. The Silverado Fire was his first multiday operation as a firefighting pilot. He felt a kinship with the long-departed Marine Corps aviators while flying onto the former El Toro runway.

“Now that I’ve switched over to the fire service world and it feels so similar,” Murphy said. “We’re continuing that tradition of agencies and individuals putting in that work where it needs to get done.”

There are also plans for the emergency aviation base beyond wildfires.

Irvine, Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Orange Fire Authority and the California National Guard have trained on how the National Guard helicopters would deliver water and other supplies at the Great Park after an earthquake, tsunami, terrorist attack or other major disaster.

OCSD Air Support’s Bell UH-1V Huey “Duke 7,” right, after landing from a day of water drops.
OCSD Air Support’s Bell UH-1V Huey “Duke 7,” right, after landing from a day of water drops. To the left, OCFA’s Bell 412 and Helicopter Express’ Bell 205A-1 depart to drop off wildland firefighters. It was at the end of the days operations with sunlight fading in October 2020.
(Damon J. Duran)

Damon Duran, 46, of Lomita photographed helicopters last year as they responded to wildfires from the Great Park. As a professional services responder for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, he receives privileged access to document air operations.

“It’s busy but choreographed,” he said. “This area turns into a little airport.”

He fondly remembers attending the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro Air Show and the solemn base closure ceremony with his dad.

“It brings back memories of how it used to be when I was a kid,” Duran said. “I’d go to Wild Rivers and up in the tube [slide] to watch the aircraft doing their touch-and-goes.”

Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to Times Community News.