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Laguna Beach holds demonstration for new helicopter refilling tank that will help fight wildfires

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

The city of Laguna Beach held a demonstration for the latest addition to its wildfire mitigation plans Tuesday, as two helicopters trained with a newly purchased water refilling tank.

The aircraft — an Orange County Fire Authority helicopter and the larger, two-propeller CH-47 Chinook — took turns refilling at the HeloPod dip tank, which holds up to 5,000 gallons of water.

Both made multiple drops over the canyon to the east. The refilling station was placed adjacent to the Arch Beach Heights fire road. Firefighters refilled the tank using a hydrant and a firehose.

“What was neat about today, it was the accumulation of activities that started many years ago,” Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia said. “Obviously, we’re concerned about wildfire safety in Southern California. We’re concerned about it here in Laguna Beach, so much so our mayor [Bob Whalen] and Councilmember [Sue Kempf] … started a wildfire subcommittee to talk about how we could better prepare for the wildfire season, and this committee started in January of 2019.”

A CH-47 Chinook helitanker hovers over the new HeloPod dip tank Councilwoman Sue Kempf and Fire Chief Mike Garcia look on.
A CH-47 Chinook helitanker hovers over the new HeloPod water refilling system as Councilwoman Sue Kempf and Fire Chief Mike Garcia, at right, look on during a demonstration on the Arch Beach Heights fire road in Laguna Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Acquiring a helicopter water refilling tank was one of the more than 40 ideas brought forth in a July 2019 report that would help with fire safety, Garcia added.

“We have a HeloPod water refilling tank,” Garcia said. “It holds about 5,000 gallons. It auto-refills. It can be activated by the pilots in the aircraft, so it doesn’t take our personnel to staff it, and it allows our helicopters to refill, drop on a fire, and get back and refill quickly, so it gives us a force multiplier.”

A fire that ignited Tuesday along the California-Nevada border has led to one death and caused extensive damage in the Mono County town of Walker.

The Laguna Beach City Council opted to purchase the HeloPod dip tank from a short list of options presented at the Oct. 13 meeting. The ability to relocate the water refilling tank outside of the wildfire season was a factor in the decision.

Council also directed staff at the time to identify a location for the potential purchase of a second refilling station.

Two crew members arrive from OCFA helicopter 2 during a presentation of the new HeloPod dip tank water refilling system.
Two crew members arrive from OCFA helicopter 2 during a presentation of the new HeloPod dip tank water refilling system on the Arch Beach Heights fire road in Laguna Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Garcia said that the city is still looking for a second location, but the priority was to get the first one in quickly, adding, “The beauty of this area right here is it’s central.”

It cost $53,000 for the HeloPod dip tank unit and the trailer.

Kempf said she felt safer for the whole town knowing that the HeloPod dip tank had been brought in. She marveled at the rate at which the helicopters were able to suck up water through their snorkels during the demonstration. The CH-47 Chinook could take on 3,000 gallons of water for a single drop.

“It was impressive because the turnaround time from the time they sucked the water in until the time they dump it in the canyon was very quick,” Kempf said. “Otherwise, they would have been going to the reservoir in [Laguna] Niguel and loading up water there and coming back, so you can imagine, that takes quite a bit of time, and the turnaround time here was really impressive.”

Bill Ward, the executive director of PumpPodUSA, which manufactured the HeloPod dip tank, said that the water refilling station pumps water back in at a rate of between 800 to 1,000 gallons per minute.

A CH-47 Chinook helitanker drops water in the brush during a presentation of the new HeloPod dip tank water refilling system.
A CH-47 Chinook helitanker drops water in the brush during a presentation of the new HeloPod dip tank water refilling system for the city of Laguna Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

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