Guaranteed Helicopter to Local Authorities on Standby this Fall for Quick Wildfire Response
July 8, 2014
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  • SAN DIEGO (CNS) – County officials plan to have a fire-attack helicopter on standby this fall to quickly respond to wildfires under a contract that guarantees local authorities exclusive use of the aircraft for two months.

    “This will significantly bolster our immediate response capabilities during the weeks when we typically see our strongest Santa Ana wind events,” Holly Crawford, county emergency services director, told the San Diego County Board of Supervisors as it voted to terminate an emergency declaration it enacted during the May wildfires.

    Crawford said a “medium type-2” fire helicopter will be on hand for local use from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31. She noted that the board had approved a $750,000 annual call-when-needed aircraft program – up from $250,000 the previous year.

    The wildfire emergency was declared May 14, one day after a series of blazes began with the Bernardo Fire, which scorched 1,600 acres in the North County. Subsequent brush fires started in Camp Pendleton, Carlsbad, Lakeside and San Marcos – among other places. The blazes destroyed nearly 50 houses around the region and burned tens of thousands of acres.

    The supervisors ratified the declaration at their meeting the following week. The action made the county eligible to be reimbursed by the state and local governments for firefighting costs.

    Darren Gretler of county emergency services said the county is awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision on a request for California disaster funding, “which could bring millions in state aid to support our fire recovery efforts.”

    Gretler told the board that final debris removal from the fire zones should wrap up July 18.

    Supervisor Dianne Jacob praised county staff for an “awesome job” on the May fires and recovery and also noted that quick response to the recent Banner Fire near Julian saved hundreds of homes.

    Supervisor Ron Roberts hailed the pre-positioning of Cal Fire aircraft, saying, “The collaboration continues to get better and better.”

    According to the county, around 1,300 firefighters from around the region and the state battled the May blazes, with aid from about 250 law enforcement officers. Around 50 aircraft from federal, state and local jurisdictions were used to extinguish the flames.

    The fire declaration was renewed by the supervisors last month. Since then, most of the debris from the destructive Cocos Fire in San Marcos has been carted away, according to a county staff report.

    Last month, the supervisors directed county staff to convene a workshop of fire, government and military officials to further improve coordination between various agencies.

    A post-action report listed 21 recommendations, including:

    — waging public information campaigns to get residents to better prepare for wildfires and follow evacuation orders;

    — delivering emergency information in additional languages besides English;

    — employing forward-looking infrared imaging devices to help firefighters locate hot spots in smoky conditions;

    — pre-positioning firefighting aircraft at the onset of dangerous fire weather; and

    — considering ways that officials can verify information quickly so it can be given to the public.

    County officials are also exploring the possibility of purchasing a third firefighting helicopter.

    The May wildfires burned down 65 structures, including 46 single-family homes, according to county statistics. Several apartments and commercial structures were also destroyed, and flames forced the evacuation of the Cal State San Marcos campus and temporarily closed numerous schools and businesses.

    Damage to private property was estimated at $29.8 million. Officials figured it cost $27.9 million to fight the blazes.

    The supervisors will also consider proposed responses to county grand jury reports on emergency response times, detention facilities and other issues.