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Helicopter that can drop 3,000 gallons on Southern California wildfires is on its way

Coulson Aviation CH-47, a aerial firefighting conversion based on the Boeing CH-47D Chinook heavy-lift helicopter. (Coulson Aviation/Released)

A helicopter that can drop up to 3,000 gallons of water in one shot on a wildfire will soon be available to combat the ever-growing blazes erupting in the region.

The Orange County Fire Authority’s board this week unanimously approved funding from Southern California Edison that will help provide the air vessel, called a helitanker, to the area for 83 days, beginning Oct. 1.

The tanker, leased from Coulson Aviation, will be manned around the clock and be available to regions serviced by Southern California Edison, including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

“This helitanker is a force multiplier,” Chief Brian Fennessy said. “Three thousand gallons is a tremendous amount of water to be able to drop at once.”

Further, this helicopter, equipped with infrared technology, can scoop up water from ponds and lakes at night. Many water-dropping aircraft are grounded at night.

Edison has agreed to provide $2.2 million to help lease and operate the CH-47 Helitanker. In 2019, the power company funded a trial program for a 1,000-gallon capacity helitanker.

Battling fires from the air is essential, especially just after the blaze starts, the chief said: “When the aircraft gets on scene, their job is to slow it down (with water drops) and give our ground crews time to arrive and extinguish it.”

Typical OCFA helicopters can carry about 350 gallons, Fennessy said.

The twin-propeller helitanker’s massive capacity of water, or retardant, certainly could come in handy during the so-called wildfire season expected to continue through December. The chief said fire agencies are bracing for hotter temperatures, drier atmosphere and more wind.

Once the helitanker’s time in the region starts, the chief said, it will be able to head, for example, to the El Dorado fire in the San Bernardino National Forest – which has claimed the life of a firefighter – or to the Bobcat fire in Angeles National Forest, the second-largest blaze to ever burn in Los Angeles County, should they still be burning.

“This is going to open up more doors for firefighting capabilities,” Fennessy said.

The aircraft will be based at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos.


© 2020 The Orange County Register