Supervisors approve getting 3rd firefighting helicopter

Harmony Grove Brush Fire
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SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego County Supervisors Tuesday authorized the acquisition of a third firefighting helicopter, one of a series of recommendations stemming from the rash of wildfires in May.

The county will spend up to $5.2 million for the UH-H1 Super Huey.

“The UH-H1 Super Huey carries 324 gallons of water from a fixed tank, most importantly it can carry a crew of 9 firefighters,” said Chief Tony Mecham, CALFIRE San Diego unit. “We’re able to drop the flight crew off, they start cutting brush and putting fire line in with helicopter backing them."

Supervisor Dianne Jacob said the third chopper will give the county a cushion in case one of the other two has to undergo maintenance.

“If one is down right now, we only have one in the air. By having three, if one’s down, then we’ll have two in the air,” said Jacob.

"Fire is a reoccurring event for us in Southern California, and I just think we need to do all we can to try to keep them at a minimum,'' Supervisor Bill Horn said.

The public is not aware of the hundreds of brush fires extinguished each year because firefighters are able to attack the flames from the air and keep them from spreading beyond a couple of acres, Horn said.

Following the 14 wildfires in May, which together scorched 25,000 acres and caused nearly $30 million in property damage, the supervisors held a workshop attended by representatives of fire agencies, elected officials, tribal leaders and the military to find a way to improve coordination.

According to Jacob, 60 people representing 40 agencies took part in the meeting.

Among the other recommendations approved Tuesday, county fire authorities will use funds to preposition ground-based firefighters during high-risk weather condition.

“What we’ll do is put fire engines together at a central location and then we can dispatch those engines to the fire,” said Mecham.

With little rain and a very hot summer, the fall fire season is already predicted to be one of the worst.

“Should the winds align and we get fires the potential is certainly there,” said Mecham.

The county’s new helicopter would not come online for about another year. A search has yet to be conducted and then the aircraft must be retrofitted for firefighting equipment. Jacob isn’t concerned; she said fighting fires isn’t just about air power.

“The firefighting helicopters they retard the fires, but it’s the boots on the ground that put the fires out. It’s that one two punch,” said Jacob.

The county also reached an agreement to negotiate with the city of San Diego to contract for use of its helicopters, which have night-flying capabilities; and standardize public communications, including issuing joint press releases..

Fire agencies are also working to improve their communications to the area's non-English speaking residents.

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