SDG&E adds nation’s largest water-dropping helicopter to fire force

SAN DIEGO -- San Diego Gas & Electric Wednesday announced a slate of improvements -- including year-round use of a firefighting helitanker that can drop up to 2,650 gallons of water at a time -- that the agency says will increase public safety and preparedness for wildfire emergencies.

Under a new contract, the utility's leased Erickson Air Crane, touted as the country's largest fire-suppression helicopter, will be available for dispatch by Cal Fire throughout the year, SDG&E Chief Operating Officer Caroline Winn said.

Previously, the aircraft could be deployed only from August to November, a period that traditionally has been the height of fire season locally.

"The SDG&E Air Crane has been and will continue to be a game changer for Cal Fire and the San Diego County Fire Authority," county Fire Chief Tony Mecham said. "To have this critical tool available to us during the early stages of a fire has already had a very real impact on fires this year."

The utility has contracted with the county since 2010 to make the helitanker available for local firefighting services.

Other improvements announced by SDG&E include new electric equipment designed to lessen the number of customers affected by power outages; the establishment of nine new community-resource centers; and the addition of a dedicated wildfire-safety page on the utility's website.

"We are working hard to mitigate the risks associated with this new normal of a year-round wildfire season and trying to protect the people and communities we serve," Winn said at a news conference, flanked by Mecham and El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells. "The new, enhanced preparedness efforts will complement SDG&E's decade-long comprehensive fire-risk mitigation program designed to prevent the ignition of wildfires."

Additionally, the utility company plans to continue modernizing infrastructure in areas prone to wildfires, as well as expanding prediction models and vegetation-management systems, according to SDG&E officials.