SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — Sikorsky Firehawk helicopters, which attack wildfires and rescue people, have been called a game-changer.
“It does provide a lot of power for us,” Said Ben Berman, with Cal Fire.
Over the past few years, that power has been crucial throughout wildfire season.
“It’s capable of three times the water capacity of what the Huey can provide. It’s got a 1,000-gallon tank on it. It can fly a third faster than a Huey as well,” Berman said.
The helicopters also provide night vision. Berman, who is chief helicopter pilot for Cal Fire, said the Firehawk chopper will be able to fight wildfires at night for the first time.
In years past, flights were limited to daylight hours.
“It’s ready to go now. With our group we have here, we are ready for an as-needed basis. We are ready for extended attack,” Berman said.
But there are only four trained instructor pilots.
“The difference between the Huey and the hawk, you have a lot more information. You are information-saturated,” Berman explained.
Berman and his colleagues used those options in a training mission near Folsom Lake.
They practiced nighttime flight operations, including landings, water dipping and dropping, fire suppression tactics and rescue operations.
“This is definitely a crawl, walk, run when it comes to doing this safely,” Berman said. “There are a lot of different factors that are involved with night flying. There are a lot of physiological factors, visual illusions, NVG operations of just using the NVG’s and a whole other familiarity with your aircraft. At night, it’s a lot more difficult to find switches and you need to know where the switches, the circuit breakers are.”
Another challenge to flying at night is the reduction of what a pilot can see compared to during the day.
“Right now, we have a 200-degree field of view. When you reduce that down to 40, you have to make up for that by turning your head a lot — doing things, you normally don’t practice,” Berman explained.
Through night flying, Cal Fire hopes to get the upper hand on wildfires earlier than ever this season.
“Our wildfire season is growing,” Cpt. Parker Wilbourn said.
Wilbourn, with the Metropolitan Fire District of Sacramento, said extreme fire behavior is a 24-hour operation, and nighttime firefighting is now a necessity.
“The misconception is when the sun goes down the fire stops burning, and that is just not the case,” Wilbourn said. “Sometimes those fires can grow at night and expand and gain the flame intensity.”
A study released by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences showed that fire activity at night is more intense because evenings are getting warmer and drier.
Night flying was also important during the Caldor Fire last August. The helicopters helped battle flames in the dark as the fire’s intensity increased.
Berman said his pilots and staff need more training so they can be even more effective.
“It’s not just going out and dropping water. We have to have aerial supervision, have to have the aerial communication center running; you have to have all those things that normally staffed for day operations now running at night,” Berman said.
Berman and his team train in a simulator room.
“There are a lot of emergency procedures we can do here, but we can’t do in the aircraft,” Berman said.
They say flying at night is both high risk and high reward. Cal Fire is now working to certify 40 more pilots to fly with special night vision goggles.
“We want crews to be flying this for a year before they go to the nightside,” Berman said.
While there are benefits to the use of choppers at night, at the end of the day, Berman said it’s about managing safety expectations.
“The most important thing is ensuring not only the public is safe but our operators are safe doing this dangerous mission,” Berman told FOX40.