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Opinion: Preparing for Severe Fire Seasons With Firehawk

By Lee Benson | April 24, 2018
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An L.A. County Sikorsky S-70 Firehawk demonstrates water suppression during a 2013 airshow. Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin

During my 27-year career with the Los Angeles County Fire Department ( LACoFD), I had the honor of serving the community as a pilot, chief pilot and Firehawk program manager. Today I am a consultant for United Rotorcraft, but I continue to advocate for the Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk helicopter because I have seen the devastation and destruction caused by the ever-growing fire seasons in California, and I believe that the Firehawk is the most effective helicopter to meet the firefighting challenges in the state now and into the future.

The Topanga Fire in 1993 burned 20,000 acres and destroyed 300 homes. This tragic event convinced me and my peers at LACoFD Air Operations that we needed a better tool than the aging fleet of Bell Helicopter 205s — the aircraft that LACoFD employed then and that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) presently utilizes — to accomplish our mission of “protecting lives, the environment and property.” This realization started an eight-year quest to find the correct helicopter and tank system to accomplish our goal to protect our constituents.

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LACoFD, Sikorsky and the U.S. Army spent tens of millions of dollars developing and fielding the Firehawk system, both with LACoFD and the National Guard, and these helicopters have flown tens of thousands of hours fighting fires without a single accident. The Firehawk is a mature, proven firefighting system.

As we’re all painfully aware, the state has experienced multiple devastating major fires and has had extreme difficulty keeping pace with them. In 2017, California wildfires burned more than 1.2 million acres, destroyed 10,802 structures and claimed 46 lives. In addition, the deadly mudslides that followed were a direct result of hillsides burned clear of critical vegetation necessary to keep land intact when heavy rains occur.

Clearly, 2017 was one of the most severe on record, and trends show that future fire seasons will be longer and more severe. Yes, I have a dog in the fight regarding the award of the multi-mission aircraft selected by Cal Fire — as does every California resident.

Recent stories have been written and words have been spoken about the cost of the Firehawk in comparison to the aircraft proposed in the losing bid. The cost of the 2017 fires in California is estimated at more than $13 billion.  The reality is that if the state is pushed into a smaller aircraft with a smaller tank and thus smaller water volume, it will save money but at higher costs of lives, property and businesses.

At the end of Cal Fire’s acquisition, there will be more than 75 Black Hawks available for firefighting in the U.S. between the National Guard, commercial operators and government entities. The synergies of the U.S.’s production of Black Hawks and the resource pool for mechanics, pilots and parts will help maintain the Firehawk’s exceptional reliability and ensure its availability. In comparison, there are currently only four AgustaWestland AW139 models, and no AW189 models, engaged in firefighting in the U.S.

I can say firsthand that the S-70i Firehawk is a firefighting machine.  The helicopter is a multi-mission platform capable of firefighting, fire crew transport, search and rescue, medical evacuation and cargo transport, with an unmatched safety record.  Plus, there is no other helicopter currently in production that can deliver more water per minute (the Firehawk’s water tank can hold 1,000 gallons of water and be refilled in under a minute from any nearby water source using its snorkel system).  The Firehawk is also equipped to be operated using night-vision goggles, which allows night operations.

California’s first responders deserve the safest aircraft available — and citizens deserve the most responsive and most capable helicopter in the world. Future fire seasons are unpredictable, but based on the trends of the past three decades, the challenges will continue to grow. One thing we can be sure of is that the Firehawk fleet will expand throughout California, vastly improving the state’s ability to quickly conquer wildfires. In addition to Cal Fire, LA County Fire, San Diego Fire and Ventura County have ordered Firehawks. Give these agencies due credit for providing state residents with the rapid and effective firefighting response they deserve.

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