During the crazy hot day and night of July 6 last year, it was a Sikorsky Firehawk sent up from Los Angeles County that drenched Holiday Hill and helped firefighters keep the Holiday Fire from spreading during nightmare winds. County Fire determined to get one of the helicopters for its own, and Direct Relief and the county vintners’ association have contributed $400,000 toward making that happen.
The five ‘copters in the county’s Air Support Unit have proven crucial through the years. During the debris flow alone, they flew 26 medevac missions, performed 131 hoists, and rescued 55 animals. The two Bell Kiowas and three Hueys, though very tough birds, are 50 years old or older, and most have more than 10,000 hours on them.
The new Sikorsky HH-60L is the beginning of a transition to more modern aircraft for the County Aviation Unit. Purchased from the California National Guard for $1.7 million, the Blackhawk — an Afghan War vet built in 2004 that’s flown 3,200 hours — is being upgraded from its previous life as an air ambulance. Compared to the county’s venerable Hueys, a Firehawk can take on three times the water — 1,000 gallons versus 300 gallons — is twice as fast and more stable in strong winds, and holds more fuel and can fly longer. About its only drawback is that due to its size, it cannot land at Cottage hospital’s rooftop helipad.
Further work remains to be done before this one’s christened a Firehawk, however. The 1,000-gallon tank has yet to be installed. The landing gear needs to be modified for the tank’s depth, which will allow the ‘copter to go from a rescue to a fire mission without reconfiguration. The county pilots also need to go through several hours of flight safety training.
In all, another $2.8 million will bring the Firehawk into the county’s aviation lineup. Proven workhorses in fire and rescue, they’ve been in use in Los Angeles County for 20 years, said Patrick Byde, a Santa Barbara County battalion chief. With its powerful twin engines, “the ship also has a much greater safety margin for the crews,” he added.
As it did for multiple nonprofits after the Thomas Fire and Montecito mudflow, Direct Relief is handling donations for the Firehawk. To contribute, see directrelief.org.