As the Cave Fire grew into a continuous line of flame alongside State Route 154, from afar, headlights could be seen bobbing on the pitch-black hillsides. It was a dozer cutting through brush on rugged terrain, establishing a fire line to keep the scorching heat from leaping farther. And in front of the ’dozer was his swamper, scouting ahead, working with the driver to keep the bulldozer on level ground as it pushed across the rough hills. But neither of them could work so close to the fire if not for the helicopters overhead, dropping water to cool the flames when they came too close.
One of Santa Barbara County’s Hueys was the first on the scene, soon joined by others from Ventura County, Angeles National Forest, and the big boy: Los Angeles County’s Firehawk. A reconfigured Sikorsky Blackhawk, the Firehawk is faster, tougher, and newer than the workhorse but elderly Hueys. L.A. County has seven of them.
Santa Barbara bought its first ‘Hawk earlier this year for $1.7 million, part of a statewide move to replace Vietnam-era helicopters with a newer breed. It’s a used National Guard Blackhawk that’s in Alabama right now, being gutted and rebuilt, said Mike Eliason, a County Fire spokesperson. The 2004 aircraft is having its armor removed and a “bambi” bucket that holds about 600 gallons installed for the short term. In that configuration, it’s expected to come online early next year.
The Blackhawk conversion costs about $2.8 million, and Direct Relief has been collecting funds raised by supporters to finish the work. The fundraising still has about $1.65 million to go. L.A. County financed nearly $30 million for two factory Firehawks in 2017. This summer, a crowd in Santa Clarita cheered when L.A. Supervisor Kathryn Barger announced the purchase of two more Firehawks, used aircraft this time at $8.4 million. The fire district votes on a six-cent property tax increase in March in much-needed funding, her office said. Ventura County bought two ‘Hawks from National Guard surplus at a cost of $15 million, with funding coming from its fire district, said Capt. Brian McGrath. Ventura Fire’s pilots are training on a medivac Blackhawk the district owns, he noted.
Not only is the Firehawk newer than the Vietnam-era Hueys, its dual engines protect against an engine failure, an essential margin of safety in ocean rescues. It remains stable in 50mph winds and, with a belly tank, it carries three times the water of a Huey and can fight fires at night.
“Only the ‘copters with tanks can fly at night because the buckets that hang below the helicopter can get caught on power lines too easily,” said Woody Enos, deputy chief of operations for Santa Barbara County Fire. “If a fire is in the backcountry where no homes are threatened, we probably wouldn’t use them at night because of the tremendous amount of risk.” Pilots gain experience as part of the county’s Search and Rescue team, Enos said: “Our Air Support Unit does a lot of hoisting in the mountains at night in rescues.”
Strict coordination has prevented accidents during Santa Barbara’s series of fires where the wildlands meet urban residences, though one of the county’s Hueys had to quickly land at Birnam Wood while pulling residents out of the 1/9 Debris Flow because its electronics shorted out in the heavy rain.
To describe fighting fire from the air at night as “dangerous” barely conveys the deadly hazards of power lines and other accidents waiting to happen, hidden by the dark and the smoke. It requires highly trained pilots experienced with night-vision goggles. It doesn’t hurt to have a familiarity with the downdrafts and extreme gusts of sundowners. “Not many agencies will fly at night,” Enos said, who was crew chief aboard Copter 308 for three years. “We’re one of about six fire agencies who have helicopters.”
Santa Barbara’s helicopter 964, as its Firehawk is currently named, has a reservation at a shop in Colorado that’s hustling to complete conversions for other fire agencies. Copter 964 awaits the 1,000-gallon belly tank that makes the Firehawk so valuable, and the taller landing gear needed to accommodate the tank. County Fire hopes to have the completed ‘Hawk by the next high fire season.
When the Cave Fire sparked in Los Padres National Forest on November 25, the forecast was for high, dry winds — a sundowner condition despite the mild temperatures. SoCal Edison was turning off the power to avoid fire ignition. Santa Barbara County Fire had staffed up. Volunteer fire departments were on alert. When flames were spotted as dusk approached, residents worried if it was a repeat of 1990’s Painted Cave Fire, which swept across 5,000 acres from the 154 to the 101, taking out hundreds of homes and killing a resident. Afterward, a man who lived near the Bridge to Nowhere wrote to the firefighters: “‘Thank you’ just feels so lacking, as you all literally ran into the fire, so that we could escape it. … Candidly, everything felt hopeless and lost — until I saw your helicopter pilots throwing all that they had at the front.”
The helicopters cooled the blaze not only to protect homes and shield dozer crews but also for ground crews, who attacked the weakened fire and kept it from rekindling. From Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Kern, CalFire, and the Angeles National Forest, 600 firefighters were deployed at the fire’s height. A weather shift to rain 48 hours after the fire started gave them the upper hand over the Cave Fire.
“We talk all the time,” said Woody Enos of the agencies that responded immediately to Santa Barbara’s call for help. The mutual-aid system works both ways, and Santa Barbara firefighters have been called to almost all of California’s large fires, including the bulldozer crews. “We have four dozer operators, and they are some of the best in the United States at what they do,” Enos said. “They go down slopes so steep they can’t come back up.” All are seasoned, having fought fires in the front country before. Many use iPad mapping to “see” the terrain in the night and sense the lay of the land.
“My dad was a heavy equipment operator,” said Enos, who was raised in Maui, where his brother is also a firefighter. “They can feel the blade and the bottom of the tracks with the seat of their pants,” he said. “It’s flat-out dangerous at night. They’re the unsung heroes of firefighting.”