Laguna Beach to pursue purchase of helicopter refilling tanks

A helicopter drops water on a ridgeline near Laguna Beach on June 26, 2016.
A helicopter drops water on a ridgeline near Laguna Beach on June 26, 2016.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The Laguna Beach City Council took a step forward in helping the city’s fire department to fight wildfires, unanimously approving the purchase of a helicopter refilling tank system and providing direction to city staff to identify a viable location for another.

After hearing a presentation from Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia, the council decided to go with the HeloPod dip tank, one of two options brought forth by Garcia. The refilling tanks can be transported via trailer to a location and hold between 5,000 and 7,000 gallons of water.

The other option considered was a Heli-Hydrant, which would have had to be permanently placed with an attached water and electrical supply underground.

On Sept. 22, the council allocated $150,000 from the Measure LL fund for the purchase of a helicopter refilling station.

Concerning placement of a tank, Garcia said using space near the fire road is one identified option. He said it would likely remain for a period of five months from July through November.

“That is our primary location in O.C. Parks property, just east of the fire road, and that would be placed for our fire season,” Garcia said. “It would be stored off site if we go portable and could be placed back if we were to have a non-seasoned fire where we could need it.”

The Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce hosted a candidates forum on Friday night over Zoom. All five candidates for city council participated in the panel discussion.

Garcia spoke to the benefit of refilling tank systems, saying that they would be a “force multiplier” by allowing helicopters to make more frequent drops by being able to hover over the water source and use a suction tube to take on between 300 and 375 gallons of water in less than a minute.

Among the challenges noted by Garcia were the aesthetics. Some members of the public voiced concern that the refilling station could become a billboard for graffiti, but overall, public participation in the discussion strongly supported getting multiple portable refilling tanks.

“Anything we can do to get us protected a little quicker is going to be a good benefit for the city and also the surrounding communities,” one resident said, noting previous close calls with fire in the Laguna Canyon and with the Aliso Fire in 2018.

A speaker that followed said it was important to act on fire safety with a sense of urgency and cited the various wildfire events going on across the state, saying, “This is a critical need for the city. It’s all that stands between us and a serious, serious disaster.”

After Garcia indicated that the portable option could be brought in quicker, Councilwoman Sue Kempf asked if the city should have two of them. Garcia said that finding a second location in addition to the fire road had proven to be troublesome.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman asked if ocean water could be an option or if it was bad for the environment. Refilling helicopters with ocean water would be a last resort, Garcia said.

“The saltwater is very destructive,” Garcia replied. “It’s destructive for the helicopters themselves, but it’s also destructive for the vegetation, the brush, and the restoration as you dump all the saltwater. That just absorbs into the soils there.

“If that’s the last resort we have, they’re going to use it, but that will be the last resort.”

Mayor Bob Whalen showed interest in getting two of the mobile refilling tanks, waiting to find a suitable location for the second one. Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow concurred.

“I like the idea of getting two,” Dicterow said. “I like the idea of doing it sequentially so that we can test things out, but to me, the idea of having the flexibility of mobility, it’s an important thing that has much greater capacity and it’s less expensive. To me, that’s great.”

If the location of the refilling tank is within the city’s jurisdiction, it would go through the planning commission for a conditional use or temporary use permit, as well as to determine the color and design. If the refilling tank is to be placed on county land, then the tank would be camouflaged to fit into the landscape.

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