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U.S. Forest Service to review ban on flying firefighting helicopters at night

November 30, 2009 |  8:32 pm

The U.S. Forest Service is reviewing its practice of not flying firefighting helicopters at night, in an apparent response to criticism of how the agency handled the early hours of the huge Station fire.

At the urging of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the Board of Supervisors last week called on the federal government to authorize deployment of water-dropping choppers after dark to battle fires in the Angeles National Forest, where the Station blaze began to spread on its first night. The Forest Service has long considered night flying too risky for pilots.

Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management Director Tom Harbour told the Associated Press on Monday that, “We are in the process ... of one more time taking a look at night-flying operations. But we will have to make sure that those operations, before we change our policy, are worth the benefits.”

The review is “welcome news,” said Tony Bell, spokesman for Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who has blasted the Forest Service for not mounting a more aggressive air assault on the Station fire.

Helicopters for the county and Los Angeles City Fire Department routinely fly night missions.

County choppers helped limit the Station fire to 15 acres during the first day, after it broke out in the lower Angeles National Forest above La Cañada Flintridge. With the fire confined to federal land, the Forest Service later took control and the helicopters were sent home.

After Forest Service commanders rolled back their response, the fire started to grow overnight, and helicopters did not return in force until several hours after first light on the critical second day, The Times has reported. People familiar with the operation told the paper that, later on Day 2, the Forest Service also rejected recommendations from firefighters for more aircraft.

The Station blaze eventually killed two county firefighters, burned 250 square miles of forest, destroyed nearly 100 dwellings and cost about $90 million to fight.

A Forest Service inquiry into its own management of the fire concluded that helicopters would not have helped early on Day 2 because the flames were burning in terrain too steep for ground crews to take advantage of water drops.

But a county review suggested that a quicker and fiercer attack from the sky might have kept the flames from raging out of control.

-- Times staff and wire reports