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Copter crews fight darkness and fire

The flights are risky enough in daylight. But the flames won't wait.

October 24, 2008|Joe Mozingo | Mozingo is a Times staff writer.

The dispatcher's voice splintered the stillness of the fire station at Van Nuys Airport at 12:51 a.m. Thursday -- abruptly squelching the pilots' hopes for a night's sleep.

"Reported brush. 405 Freeway south of Skirball."

In less than nine minutes -- at 1 a.m. -- Glenn Smith was circling over the fire in his Bell 206 helicopter, trying to assess the situation.

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.

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.

In daytime, this is dangerous enough. At night, a mountainside might look like open sky, power lines might vanish in the black, an approaching aircraft's lights might blend with the streetlights in the background. The dark can play tricks on the eyes.

Senior Pilot Dale Gant flew city Fire 2 -- a 20-year-old Bell 412 helicopter -- down the opposite side of the 405 Freeway, looking at the rising tendrils of fire to the west. The chaparral was thick with fuel, and flames thrashed out 100 feet or more.

He needed to put his water dead-on the leading edge, before it reached the homes on Ridge Drive in the Mountaingate neighborhood. But the wind tilted smoke into his path.

Fire pilots generally follow a 50/50 rule -- drop the water at 50 knots and at 50 feet above the flames. Too slow or low, the water doesn't smother enough fire. Higher and faster, it dissipates too much.

Gant, 55, would have to cut right through the smoke -- flying blind for heart-pounding seconds and praying that he didn't miscalculate his trajectory into darkened terrain on the other side.

He banked to the west toward the fire, keeping a level approach. Swooping in would put too much propeller wash on the ground, driving embers into the air and fanning the flames.

Such are the bits of accumulated wisdom that crystallize into a master's acumen. Gant's been doing this for 26 years, and knows there is artistry in a water drop.

"Fire 2's in for the drop," he said on the radio.

The helicopter hit the turbulent air around the fire and started shuddering. Heat radiated into the cockpit. Gant hit a button on the control arm in front of him. The water tank doors opened and the helicopter's nose pitched up with the loss of 350 gallons of water.

He hit the smoke column, flying "into the soup," flickering black and orange. And then he was out of it, looking at the starry sky and the vast circuit-board of city lights.

He banked north, and could see that the spot of fire he hit was out.

"Fire 2, clearing up the freeway," he called on the radio.

He headed toward a makeshift landing spot on Mulholland Drive to refill his water tank, and in less than 10 minutes was zeroing in on the flames again, with the same sense of suspense as the last one.

"No two drops are alike," he said later at the fire station, as he recounted the early morning's events. "The first drop you might get big updrafts and the next one you get downdrafts."

In the command helicopter high above, Smith and Foley watched the battle unfold like generals on a hillside. They had nine water droppers flying in a clockwise pattern from the fire to two landing spots on Mulholland.

One of the biggest dangers with so many helicopters in motion in a narrow area is keeping them apart.

Everything is visual. There is no flying on instruments. The county pilots have night- vision goggles; the city pilots do not.

Often the fire itself helps light up the terrain.

As Smith directed the pilots, Foley advised the incident commander on the ground of the fire's whereabouts and where he might want to send crews. Now and then, they buzzed over Brentwood and the Getty Center to ensure that flying embers hadn't started spot fires to the south or west.

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