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Helicopter pilots flew daring night drops to best Sepulveda Pass fire

October 24, 2008 | 11:07 am


Mere moments after the first call came in about the midnight fire in the Sepulveda Pass, helicopter pilots started a rare and daring series nighttime water drops, fighting high winds in risky terrain, all to get a jump on the blaze. Our own Joe Mozingo tells the tale:

It looked bad. A moderate Santa Ana had funneled south through Sepulveda Pass, driving narrow torrents of flame up draws in the hillside, to a line of town homes on the ridge. His pilots would have to lay siege to that "hot flank" to keep it away from the homes.

Smith, a command pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department, circled clockwise to look out his right window. He flipped on his Nightsun searchlight to scan for power lines or any other danger hidden in the dark. Nothing.

And so began the water-dropping campaign that would save dozens of homes, firefighters winning an early skirmish in this year's fire season. They said their response was a casebook study of an inherently dangerous mission: the nighttime aerial assault.

Thank_you At 1,500 feet in the air, Smith directed nine water-dropping helicopters from the city and Los Angeles County, in coordination with 400 firefighters on the ground. They knew, as with every fire, that they had to hit it hard and fast, hoping to contain it before the blaze grew into a monster.

In this case, if the firefighters didn't kill it before that ridge, the fire would have a path straight into Mandeville Canyon and the wooded heart of Brentwood.

"If the fire gets going down that canyon, it's lights out," said Battalion Chief Joseph F. Foley, who flew with Smith in the command helicopter.

Read the rest of Joe's story here. And we've got more fire photos here.

-- Veronique de Turenne

Top photo credit: Mike Meadows / Associated Press

Bottom photo: LAFD Command Pilot Glenn Smith, left, and Battalion Chief Joseph F. Foley, in the cockpit of their command helicopter at LAFD's Air Operations. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times