Man-made wetlands at Fairview Park aid in firefighting effort

Costa Mesa didn't envision a helicopter guzzling more than 8,000 gallons of water from the carefully engineered lakes it christened last year as part of 37 arces of man-made wetlands in Fairview Park, Public Services Director Ernesto Munoz said.

But on Thursday, an Orange County Fire Authority helicopter did just that, swooping down to refill its tank almost two dozen times to help douse a three-acre brush fire in nearby Talbert Regional Park.

"It was definitely a convenient thing to have a bunch of lakes," Munoz said.

At about 11:30 that morning, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and OCFA crews responded to the blaze in Talbert, but their biggest weapon was the helicopter dumping 360 gallons of water at a time.

That much liquid crashing down on a small fire is a quick, effective punch that can minimize the chance of the wind spreading flames quickly, according to Costa Mesa Fire Chief Dan Stefano.

"Ember production is what we're concerned about," he said.

Twenty-three times the chopper dumped water on the Talbert fire, and after each drop it traveled only a few hundred yards to Fairview Park's man-made lakes to refill for another pass.

With that help from the air, crews were able to control the fire within a few hours and start mopping up.

"We could not have had the impact we had without that support [Thursday]," Stefano said.

Stefano said it's not atypical for a chopper to make that many drops over the span of a few hours, but if it weren't for the lakes, firefighters would have had to set up another way for the helicopter to refill.

That's typically done by tapping into a nearby fire hydrant or other supply line and finding a place for the airship to land.

"It's all about being flexible and moving around," Stefano said.

But the lakes, he said, were an excellent option Thursday, one that firefighters didn't have a year ago.

Costa Mesa created the reservoirs as part of a wetlands habitat that opened in February.

Millions of gallons of urban runoff is pumped into the largest lake, Munoz said. From there, the water filters through a natural system of streams and ponds until it's clean enough to enter the wetlands.

This keeps the runoff from rushing into the ocean and restores some of the area back to its natural habitat.

By drawing from the largest lake, the OCFA copter wasn't disrupting the process at all, Munoz said.

"It was perfectly OK for them to do that," he said.

In fact, after the helicopter left, it was nearly impossible to tell it had been there. The system's pumps can fill the reservoir with up to 500 gallons of runoff a minute.

"You saw that the lake level didn't even flinch," Munoz said.

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