A critical piece of Southern California's effort to fight fire has been quietly making a name for itself for the last five years. The Quick Reaction Force (QRF) is a cross-agency partnership that has been available during peak fire seasons, but now thanks to $35 million from Southern California Edison, this first of its kind public-private partnership is available year round.
"Nobody has ever really had the ability to bring those types of resources, large resources together to attack a fire that is going to escape initial attack or extended attack," explained Chief Brian Fennessy of the Orange County Fire Authority.
The QRF is a 24-hours a day fire suppression helitanker fleet across three counties. L.A., Orange and Ventura counties each contract a CH-47 Chinook helitanker through Coulson Aviation to aid existing resources. It is the largest firefighting helicopter on the planet able to drop 3,000 gallons of water or retardant, day or night, and can refill the tanks in under 90 seconds.
"It's like having a 3,000-gallon, very large air tanker assigned. Why wouldn't we want to do that throughout the night? Why does it have to end during the day just because the airplanes go home? Well, now it doesn't," Fennessy said.
It's like having a 3,000-gallon, very large air tanker assigned. Why wouldn't we want to do that throughout the night? Why does it have to end during the day just because the airplanes go home? Well, now it doesn't.Chief Brian Fennessy, OCFA
"This will go on every first-alarm brush assignment. That's a game changer along with our helicopters and our air operations, so to have that extra boost is huge." said Capt. Sheila Kelliher Berkoh, the public information officer for L.A. County Fire.
A fire in Topanga this month started in windy conditions around 2 a.m. An aggressive overnight attack by QRF helped stop the fire at about 3 acres. Without the night time air assault, it's easy to see how much more would have been lost in the hours before sunrise.
"Unfortunately, a home was lost, but at least other homes weren't lost. They were able to catch it before more damage was done," said Kyle Howard, the pilot in command for Coulson Aviation.
The fleet also contains a reconnaissance helicopter. It won't drop payload, but night vision goggles help the crew safely guide the helitankers below. With laser guidance from one chopper to another, retardant can actually be dropped at night with more precision than during daylight hours.
"So we can tell them where to start and where to stop. We can also give them GPS coordinates, and they can program that tank to open at those coordinates and close at those coordinates," explained Joel Lane, the helicopter coordinator for OCFA.
The Route Fire in 2022 burned over 5,000 acres between the 5 Freeway and Castaic Lake. The Marple Fire in 1996 burned 20,000 acres in the same area. In today's dollars, it's estimated the fire in '96 would cost $70 million to $140 million to fight. The Route Fire was $7-8 million, thanks in large part to QRF.
Chief Fennessy knows that the value of this force is far greater than dollars and cents.
"Beyond just providing the protection and the resources here locally, we'd like to see expand this kind of thinking, this kind of capability throughout the western United States," the chief said.