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OC's night-flying fire chopper policy reviewed

November 25, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Firefighters expect to have a brush fire in Orange County fully contained by Thursday. The fire started Tuesday night in Anaheim Hills. Only Los Angeles County fire helicopters were able to make water drops.The fire broke out just before 10 p.m. Tuesday near Anaheim Hills. The California Highway Patrol reported the first flames near the east side of State Route 241 and the 91 Freeway.

Thanks to an aggressive effort from the air and ground, the fire was 90 percent contained Wednesday. The area was experiencing gusts between 40 and 50 miles per hour. Full containment of the fire was expected by midday Thursday.

The fire burned about 80 acres of hillside in the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. No homes were threatened. The firefighting effort includes about 200 firefighters and water-dropping helicopters.

The Orange County Fire Authority has two relatively new helicopters. They were delivered in January and February. They have night-vision capability, but so far the choppers have not flown at night, because the department is still working out policy.

The brush fire started just east of the Eastern Transportation Corridor, the 241 toll road, near Anaheim Hills about 10 p.m. Tuesday. The flames were driven by strong winds near the Windy Ridge Toll Plaza. The fire was burning on the east side of the toll road. The community of Anaheim Hills is on the west side of the road.

"Last night winds were gusting at 40 to 50 miles an hour," said Orange County Fire Authority Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion. "Our worry was with the winds that it would be pushed over and cross the 241 toll road. It never did that."

At about midnight, a Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter capable of flying at night helped out with water drops.

"It's always good to have air support," said Concepcion. "Because air support gets water on the fire a lot more quickly than we can with the ground troops."

The Orange County Fire Authority has two new helicopters with night-vision capability, but so far they've been grounded at night, starting 30 minutes after sunset until 30 minutes before sunrise. Officials say they're still working on department policy.

"Flying during the day and flying at night is a big difference," said Concepcion. "Before we implement our policy we want to make sure that it's absolutely, 100 percent safe."

The O.C. Fire Authority also says L.A. County's helicopter is able to fly under more severe wind conditions than the O.C. choppers.

The issue of fighting fires from the air at night has been controversial at times. Like Orange County, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal FIRE) only flies in daylight.

This week, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to urge the U.S. Forest Service to change its policies to allow night flying. That comes after the Station Fire, the largest wildfire in L.A. County history.

In Orange County, officials say they don't have a time frame for implementing policy, but if it were in place Tuesday night, they most likely would not have flown in the dark for this fire.

"Our policy is going to state: Unless there is life or property threatened, we probably wouldn't fly at night anyway," said Concepcion.

There were no lives or homes threatened by the fire Tuesday night.

The fire was 90 percent contained Wednesday evening, and full containment was expected by midday Thursday. One firefighter suffered a minor eye injury. There was a smoke advisory issued Wednesday.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. Officials said because the fire began near the 241 toll road, it's possible a driver accidently sparked the blaze.


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