Airing fire suppression strategy

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    The following letter was addressed to Malibu Jerry Jackson who questioned the Fire Department for failing to use SuperScoopers during the recent Malibu fire.

    We appreciate your interest in writing to us about aerial firefighting. I am very proud of the outstanding job of fire suppression done by the personnel who responded to the recent Malibu Fire.

    The successful outcome of that fire, which occurred under extreme wind conditions, resulted from a coordinated attack of ground resources, that included bulldozers, hand crews, fire engine companies, and command officers. Additional help came from various helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that dropped fire retardant chemicals. Of course, proper brush clearance around structures greatly helped in protecting them as well.

    I mention these things in responding to your inquiry about the SuperScooper aircraft so that you might understand that there is no one tool that leads to brush firefighting success. Success comes from a combination of resources and personnel being skillfully employed in the correct location at the right time. While I am a proponent of the SuperScoopers, I know from experience that even they have limitations. Among these limitations is high wind. Given the required airspeed and altitude of the SuperScoopers, strong gusty winds tend to disburse their drops making such drops less effective than those of helicopters, so there is no basis for anyone to conclude that if the SuperScoopers had been there, the fire would have ended differently. At the same time, I am not going to assert that they would not have made a difference. If the SuperScoopers had been here, we would have dispatched them.

    This brings me to the key point: it is not cost-effective to purchase the SuperScoopers or to lease them for a longer term than we already do. Therefore, there is always a chance that a brush fire will break out when the SuperScoopers are not here. However, the chances of it being a wind-driven fire like the recent ones this past January are low.

    Further, the recent addition of two, 1,000-gallon Firehawk helicopters to the Department’s fleet better prepares us to successfully contend with such infrequent fire events.

    Although we respond to brush fires in every month of the year, the real threat from these is usually during the period of September through November. Our SuperScooper lease arrangements cover these months with some more days for flexibility given the predicted weather conditions. This past year, with the rainfall that we experienced in December, fuel moisture rose and the SuperScoopers were released prior to Christmas. It was a good decision based on factual data that proved accurate even in the face of the extreme Santa Ana winds in Malibu and across the County in early January.

    In addition to fire suppression, the Fire Department must operate within its budget while spending tax dollars prudently. Being the only fire service agency to repeatedly use the SuperScooper, although on a lease basis, I think we have been able to strike a good balance between aggressive air attack on brush fires and cost-effectiveness.

    Your observations are valued by me and I trust that this response will clarify some aspects of aerial firefighting strategy and tactics.

    P. Michael Freeman

    Fire Chief, Forester and

    Fire Warden

    County of Los Angeles Fire Department