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New $24 million helicopter brings military technology to California firefighting

Cal Fire Hawk (U.S. Department of Defense/Flickr)

With the sound of its twin, 2,000-horsepower turbine engines remarkably muffled, the sleek red and white firefighting helicopter lifted gracefully into an azure sky Thursday morning from a ridgetop base in Lake County.

The Cal Fire Hawk, one of a dozen purchased by the state for $288 million, made its debut this week at the helitack base here amid a pine forest in the Mayacamas Mountains near the rural community of Cobb.

Copter 104 — capable of flying up 160 mph and carrying 1,000 gallons of water in a steel tank affixed to its belly — can fly to Santa Rosa in 10 to 12 minutes and lay a 300-yard trail of water on a fire from 100 feet above ground or tree level on arrival.

“It’s the latest and greatest,” said Michael Schanley, one of the two pilots assigned to the Boggs Mountain base. “This is frontline Army aviation.”

The $24 million helicopter’s greatest asset is suitability for nighttime firefighting in an era of deadly and devastating infernos like the 2017 North Bay firestorm and last year’s Glass fire. Both raged through the night.

On the other hand, wildfires sometimes die down at night, with lower temperatures and lighter winds affording an ideal time to attack flames.

Cal Fire decided not to deploy its Vietnam War-era single-engine Super Huey helicopters for firefighting and rescues in darkness, but is now moving cautiously into a program with the Hawks flown by pilots wearing night vision goggles.

Five bases have been approved for the program, marking Cal Fire’s entry into nighttime firefighting for the first time since the agency’s aviation branch began with converted crop dusters serving as air tankers in the 1950s.

Cal Fire, which operates the world’s largest fire department-owed air fleet, now has 58 aircraft, including the Super Huey and Hawk helicopters, 23 air tankers and other fixed-wing aircraft.

Boggs Mountain is not currently in line for the night-flying program, and the designated base closest to Sonoma County is the Alma Helitack Fire Station at Los Gatos in Santa Clara County.

The other four bases included in the program are in Humboldt, Tehama, San Bernardino and San Benito counties.

“The program is in its infancy,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jake Hannan said.

Transitioning from the Huey to the Hawk program is a “complex process” that requires ensuring pilots and ground crew are safe operating by day before expanding to nighttime operations, he said.

The $24 million Hawk, which can also ferry seven firefighters in a spacious cabin and conduct rescues with a hoist and a 250-foot cable, is a civilian version of Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawk flown by U.S. armed forces and others around the world.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose district has been ravaged by wildfires, has called the Hawks “game changers that can help us combat this new reality of megafires.”

In addition to Boggs Mountain, Hawks have also been deployed to Cal Fire bases at Vina in Tehama County, Columbia in Tuolumne County and Hemet in Riverside County. All 10 helitack bases will ultimately acquire one, with two Hawks held in reserve to fill in for helicopters needing maintenance.

The Howard Forest Helitack Base near Willits in Mendocino County is scheduled to get a Hawk later this year.

Their arrival is timely, with drought-stressed California facing a long, dry fire season that has already tallied more than 4,000 wildfires scorching nearly 32,000 acres. More than 1,000 firefighters were battling three blazes Thursday in Northern California.

The Hawk at Boggs Mountain has already responded to a 20-acre fire at Cameron Park in El Dorado County, dropping five tanks of water on the blaze, Cal Fire Capt. Phil Mateer said.

C-104 inherited its number from the Super Huey it is replacing at Boggs, as the Hawks supplant all 12 of the aging machines with an undetermined future.

Some Cal Fire veterans have sentimental attachment to the half-century-old Hueys.

“We talk about the Huey being an old Chevy farm truck. Easy to start; it keeps going,” said Schanley, the pilot.

In contrast, he said, the Hawks are like “flying a bunch of computers with a rotor on top.”

Schanley said he flies to fires at about 140 mph, well below the cruising capacity of 160 mph in a deliberate effort to balance speed against fuel consumption and efficiency.

The Hueys top out at 126 mph and carry, at most, 324 gallons of water in a bucket suspended from the aircraft.

The snorkel on a Hawk consists of a 12-foot long hose on a roller tucked into the helicopter’s side, with a 7.5 horsepower pump that can fill the tank in a minute.

“I think the taxpayers got their money’s worth,” Schanley said. “A great value for the dollar.”

“To me, it’s fun,” he said, shortly before Thursday’s takeoff.

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(c) 2021 The Press Democrat

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