SoCal Prepares for ‘Bad Fire Season’ With World’s Largest Helitankers

By Jack Bradley
Jack Bradley
Jack Bradley
Jack Bradley is a daily news reporter for The Epoch Times based in Southern California.
June 14, 2021 Updated: June 16, 2021

Three Southern California counties are joining forces to operate the world’s largest water-dropping helitankers prior to the start of a “bad fire season.”

The cooperative, dubbed “Quick Reaction Force,” was initiated June 15 after Southern California Edison (SCE) donated $18 million to the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA), Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD), the Ventura County Fire Department, Coulson Aviation, and Perimeter Solutions.

“This is a game changer,” LACoFD Chief Daryl Osby told The Epoch Times on June 14.

The partnership allocates one Chinook CH-47 helitanker to be stationed at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, and another at the Van Nuys Air Tanker Base. Each aircraft has the ability to drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant.

A smaller Sikorsky S-61 helitanker will be stationed in Camarillo, with the capacity to drop 1,000 gallons of water or fire retardant.

The aircrafts are not limited to these three counties and can be allocated to other counties in the region if necessary.

The partnership will run for a 180 day period—about the duration of the fire season.

OCFA used a Chinook helitanker last year and made more than 100 water dumps in December alone.

Prior to the Chinook, no aircraft had the capacity to drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant, nor have large helitankers been able to fly at night, which the Chinook can do. Firefighting aircraft were previously limited to dropping 1,000 gallons of water.

OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy said with the Chinook helitankers’ large water capacity, it can pass through the canopy of leaves and brush that smaller-capacity helitankers can’t reach.

“It’s hard for that water sometimes to get down into the base … [with] 3,000 gallons—you’re making mud,” Fennessy told The Epoch Times.

“There are no other helitankers that are fighting fire at night. None are dropping retardant.”

Wayne Coulson, chief executive and owner of Coulson Aviation, which provided the helitankers, said the Chinook is an ex-military aircraft that was repurposed for firefighting.

“That’s kind of the magic; where we can put a retardant line in at night, versus no other aircraft can do that,” Coulson told The Epoch Times.

Chinooks will cost $32,000 per day, per aircraft. The Sikorsky S-61 helitanker will cost around $22,000 per day.

The fire-retardant provider, Perimeter Solutions, is providing mobile tanks filled with the red fire retardant that will be carried on trucks to locations with fire outbreaks.

The fire retardant consists mostly of fertilizer, and highly engineered performance additives that give it the red color, making it visible to firefighter pilots, Wes Bolsen, director of wildfire prevention at Perimeter Solutions, told The Epoch Times.

Mobile retardant base (MRB) can be transported near the site of a fire to allow a helitanker to refill with fire retardant in a matter of minutes.

Epoch Times Photo
Orange County Fire Authority and partners Ventura and Los Angeles County fire departments gather for the release of a new Cu-47 Helitanker twin rotor helicopter capable of releasing 3,000 gallons of fire retardant upon wildfires. Los Alamitos, Calif., on June 14, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Perimeter Solutions has 12 MRBs that will be driven to and stationed near fire activity. Containers can hold about 6,500 gallons of fire retardant, allowing the Chinook helitanker multiple refills.

Each county will also have several dip tanks placed in fire-prone areas, holding about 5,000 gallons of fire retardant.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Michael Leeney, who oversees the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, said Fennessy contacted him about storing Orange County’s helitanker and other firefighting aircraft at the base.

“It’s just a very convenient location,” Leeney told The Epoch Times.

“It’s also a large runway; we have a lot of space. It’s really the only military airfield left in the L.A. basin, after all the [military base] closures.”

The base was used to store Orange County’s first Chinook in 2019, when the state and federal governments declared a wildfire emergency.

“They needed somewhere to bring these birds in to operate because they hadn’t used them yet,” he said. “We’re expecting to have a bad fire season—like we’ve had in the past four or five years. But, right now, we’re going to be better prepared to deal with that if things get bad.”

SoCal Edison donated to the cause in an effort to keep the community safe, chief executive Kevin Payne told reporters.

“Our top priority is the safety of our community,” Payne said during a June 14 press conference. “It’s really a proud moment for us to be able to partner with our fire agencies to bring this new technology so that we can more effectively fight fires.”

Jack Bradley
Jack Bradley
Jack Bradley is a daily news reporter for The Epoch Times based in Southern California.