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Battling Wildfires from the Air Too Difficult at Night, Cal Fire Says

SACRAMENTO -- Attacking flames from the air is a key part of Cal Fire's strategy.

"We own the largest air fleet for fire fighting aircraft in the world," Cal Fire's deputy assistant director Daniel Berlant said.

But what Cal Fire doesn't own is a helicopter the agency is willing to fight fires with at night. The single-engine, Vietnam-era Hueys they currently fly aren't up for the job.

"At nighttime, flying a single engine aircraft over an area you can't see in an emergency situation is just not a risk we're willing to put the public in, as well as our own pilots," Berlant told FOX40.

In the dark of a blustery night two Sundays ago, a number of wildfires in the North Bay would ultimately grow to be the deadliest in California history.

Cal Fire didn't start their air attack until daylight, but Berlant says they would not have flown that night, even if they could have.

"When we are experiencing winds 50 to 60 miles an hour, that's too much wind for us to fly the aircraft -- not just for safety aspects, but the fire retardant," Berlant said. "The water being dropped is not ever going to make it to the ground. So in conditions like we experienced in the North Bay, having helicopters that can fly at night may not have made he difference."

Regardless, CalFire is updating its fleet.

They will be replacing the fleet of aging Huey helicopters with as many as a dozen new Black Hawks, with a price tag of about $20 million each -- and those twin engine Black Hawks will be equipped to fight fire at night.