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Featured Rancho Santa Fe Lead Story

Firefighting helicopter coming to North County

REGION — With the ongoing drought extending further into the year, the fuel moisture in the North County is at its lowest level seen since the recording of fuel moistures have begun, explained Mike Gibbs, deputy fire chief of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District.

“And that’s representative throughout the state,” he said.

Until there’s any significant rain to bring those moisture levels up, Gibbs said we are in a position to have large fires all the way until that point in time.

Staring at the high-risk potential for more wildfires this year, there is a bit of good news coming to fire agencies in the North County.

Earlier this week, SDG&E and the Olivenhain Municipal Water District announced that a Type II firefighting helicopter will be staged at the District’s David C. McCollom Water Treatment Plant in the Harmony Grove area during red flag warning days.

The basis for the additional helicopter was prompted by the wildfires the North County experienced earlier this May, explained Stephanie Donovan, a spokeswoman for SDG&E.

Donovan said this is an SDG&E-supported effort to improve overall regional preparedness. “It’s not going to cost the fire agencies or the various communities,” she said.

Gibbs said that whenever aerial support arrives on scene and starts taking action by putting water on the fire, there’s a direct impact.

“Aerial support helps on every fire, irregardless of terrain. The work that the air tankers do and that the helicopters do directly support the actions that are taking place on the ground on any type of vegetation fire,” he said.

The contract SDG&E has with Helistream Aviation, the Costa Mesa-based aviation company which owns the helicopter and whose pilots will operate it, will last through the end of November.

Donovan added that SDG&E will reevaluate at the end of the year whether providing these aircraft for firefighting purposes is something they’ll be able to continue to do. In September, SDG&E also contracted for the use of an Erikson Ari-Crane helitanker.

Contracting for the helicopters is a costly endeavor, yet the power company and the county of San Diego have established a Memorandum of Understanding, setting a $300,000 budget for fire season, according to a press release from the power company.

SDG&E, the release stated, would cover the cost of operating the helicopters during the first two hours of flight of any new fire, and the county would cover the second two hours of flight. That money would come from the county’s aerial fire protection fund.

By having it up here in the North County, obviously it’s closer to incidents, so there’s less flight time coming from Gillespie Field in El Cajon (where the helicopter will be staged on non high fire risk days), Gibbs explained.

“It’s not only important for us to meet our mission in the District, but it’s a regional air asset that’s available to the entire county and for that matter, all of North County,” he said.

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