Training for the Next Big Blaze

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Fire officials from Los Angeles and Orange counties perform a joint drill on Tuesday, Nov. 17, practicing filling and dumping a CH-47 Chinook tanked helicopter from helispot 69 Bravo in Topanga in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Topanga’s helispot 69 Bravo—where helicopters fill up from water tanks to fight fires in the Santa Monica Mountains—made headlines in November, hosting a high-profile training drill for the largest tanked helicopter in the world, a CH-47 Chinook that is based in Orange County on a contract that goes through December, the end of peak fire season in California.

Fire season is not over yet—the National Weather Service announced on Tuesday there would be a “particularly dangerous situation” this week and issued a Red Flag Warning in the Santa Monica Mountains and other areas of LA and Ventura counties from 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 2, through 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5. The most severe conditions are expected between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. Thursday. 

Though Malibu has weathered many small fires since Woolsey in 2018, most recently on Sunday night, Nov. 29, when a vehicle crashed into a power pole, starting a 1/8-acre brush fire on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, wind conditions this coming week “will be favorable for very rapid fire spread, long range spotting and very extreme fire behavior which would threaten life and property.”

With ongoing low fuel moisture and low humidity, the fire department is taking this fire season very seriously.

“It is important and vital that we continue to partner with our peers to provide each other with critically needed air and ground resources that are essential at a moment’s notice, especially during large-scale wildfire events when lives and property are threatened,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said in a statement provided by the LA County Fire Department prior to the Nov. 17 training exercise. “We continue to learn and grow from past and present wildfire incidents, such as the Woolsey, Lake, and Bobcat fires. With wildfires increasing in intensity and size, we must all work together to be prepared and best strategize how to bolster our ability to protect communities when they need us the most.”

Since 2011, 69 Bravo—described by the fire department as “an irreplaceable asset for the citizens of the Santa Monica Mountains”—has provided more than 1.1 million gallons of water to fight 41 fires in the Malibu and Topanga areas. 

While 69 Bravo was in operation throughout the Woolsey Fire of 2018, perilous conditions including high winds and darkness kept air support grounded for much of the major firefighting effort. While Santa Ana wind gusts are a major concern for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft (such as the Quebec I and II “superscoopers” that aided in the Woolsey effort), the Chinook has one major advantage: it is night vision certified, meaning it can conduct operations day and night. It also has the ability to drop 3,000 gallons of water at once—compared to the 1,000-gallon tank of a Fire Hawk helicopter, the other helicopters utilized by the LA County Fire Department.

A large portion of the Chinook’s multi-million-dollar lease is being paid by Southern California Edison, the utility company held responsible for several major fires in recent history including Woolsey. 

While the tanker is now back at Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in Orange County, 69 Bravo is fully operational and able to “reach any fire within the five-mile radius in less than 150 seconds,” the fire department stated, adding, “69 Bravo’s 34 acres is able to support five strike teams consisting of 20 engines/vehicles and 80 firefighters along with seven helicopter landing zones—all within 100 feet of a fire hydrant ‘wharf.’” 

And, should another conflagration occur, the Chinook could be called upon to lend firefighting support out of Topanga’s 69 Bravo helispot.