Night firefighting flights reviewed

WASHINGTON — More night-flying aircraft might reinforce the fight against forest fires, several decades after the federal government grounded them over safety fears.

Prompted in part by last year's fatal Station fire in Southern California, U.S. Forest Service officials said Wednesday that they formally are reviewing the policy that's kept the agency's planes and helicopters from flying after dark. They're balancing risk versus reward, with congressional kibitzers starting to weigh in.

"We have started to do that analysis," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told a Senate panel Wednesday.

The study, though, may not be finished until the fall, even as the Forest Service prepares for what Tidwell predicted could be "a very active fire season."

Undermined by drought and bark-beetle damage, California's Sierra forests potentially are among the nation's most vulnerable.

Last year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection recorded 8,291 fires covering 93,296 acres of state land. An additional 1,522 fires covered 308,885 acres of Forest Service land in California.

"California is a very fire-prone state," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate appropriations panel that funds the Forest Service. "It is hot, it is dry, it is windblown."

It is also a dangerous state in which to fight fires from the air.

First accidents in Sequoia

The first recorded aviation-related firefighting accident in the country occurred in the Sequoia National Forest in 1959. Two years later, the nation's first recorded helicopter-related firefighting accident also occurred on the Sequoia National Forest.

Since 1959, federal records show, more than 50 firefighters and flight crew members have died in aviation-related accidents in California.

Helicopters, in particular, account for a disproportionate share of Forest Service aviation accidents, agency records show.

After a fatal nighttime helicopter accident in 1977, the Forest Service stopped allowing night firefighting flights by planes and helicopters. Kern County, Los Angeles County and some other jurisdictions still maintain small firefighting air forces capable of nighttime action.

In August, on the first night of what became the 160,000-acre Station fire in the Angeles National Forest, a Forest Service incident commander requested use of a Los Angeles helicopter. The chopper dropped three loads of water but then was diverted to emergency medical service, Tidwell noted.

Because of the Forest Service's ban on night flights, and some apparent confusion over when tankers were due in the morning, air drops didn't resume until about 9 a.m. on the fire's second day. Two firefighters died and 89 homes were consumed before the fire was brought under control.

"The need for night flying has increased dramatically since the 1970s," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, adding that "the technology to enable night flying has also developed greatly."