Cal Fire firefighters now better equipped to fight fires at night

Phillip Palmer Image
Saturday, October 22, 2022
Cal Fire firefighters now better equipped to fight fires at night
Night-flying helicopters and night vision goggles allow Cal Fire to be more effective when fighting fires at night.

HEMET, Calif. (KABC) -- The Fairview Fire in September killed two people and burned more than 28,000 acres and without the advances of firefighting technology, the situation could've been much worse.

Being able to fight fire after the sun sets is not new, but for Cal Fire, having night-flying helicopters and night vision goggles is.

"The night-flying helicopters played a significant role in the assistance to the ground crews to be able to save an unknown number of houses," said Joshua Bischof, Battalion Chief for Cal Fire's Hemet Ryan AirTech Base.

Five of the 10 bases across the state now have the Cal Fire Hawk, a twin engine helicopter that flies faster and drops more water than the older choppers.

In July, the pilots and crew in Hemet all began training to use night vision goggles.

They used those goggles and put them to the test for the first time while battling the Fairview Fire.

Bischof explained the conditions were more in Cal Fire's favor.

"The ability to, after dark, when those conditions are more in our favor, to be able to deliver water to support those ground crews is going to be a major game changer for us," Bischof said.

Pilots and crew members can see the landscape through the goggles as it takes dim light and converts it to green.

Eyes are more sensitive to that, but it's easier to look through for long periods of time.

There are only a handful of pilots trained to use the night vision goggles at Cal Fire because the technology can actually make flying at night even more dangerous.

"With the goggles, your field of view is very limited, so you go from having a normal full field of view down to about 40-degree field of view so you have to be cognizant of moving your head to have a composite scan rather than relying on some of the peripheral vision cues that you utilize when you don't have the goggles on," said Jesse Greer, a forestry fire pilot at Hemet Ryan Attack Base.

The plan is to eventually use the Cal Fire Hawk and its night vision technology at all bases across the state.

Even with the dangers that are part of flying at night, it's a risk that Bischof feels could make a significant impact.

"At the end of the day, protecting the citizens of California and protecting life and property is what's most important, and if we can be effective and safe doing that at night and be able to protect the citizens in a greater way then that is exciting to me," he said.