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County brings in annual reinforcements for fire season

Posted: August 26, 2013 5:08 p.m.
Updated: August 26, 2013 5:08 p.m.

One of two so-called Super Scooper water-dropping aircraft was on display at Van Nuys Airport on Monday. They have a maximum water capacity of 1,600 gallons. Charlie Kaijo/For The Signal

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VAN NUYS — With a deafening roar the enormous aircraft came to life.

The craft’s yellow-and-red hull lurched forward on the tarmac of Van Nuys Airport, the wind generated by its pair of sizable propellers enough to knock the hats off some.

With deft maneuvers disproportionate to its size, the CL-415 Super Scooper air tanker ramped up its speed and soared into the sunny sky.

What officials call the county’s “air armada” has arrived to aid firefighting efforts in Los Angeles County.

20-year deal
For the last 20 years, Los Angeles County has had an agreement in place with the Canadian province of Quebec to lease aircraft, including two of the Super Scoopers, ahead of what is considered the county’s active fire season. The craft arrived early this year — as did the fire season.

“This is our county’s foreign policy,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky on Monday during a media event at Van Nuys Airport.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes the Santa Clarita Valley, said the aircraft are part of the county’s commitment to immediately respond to a fire and keep it from growing.

Antonovich said failing to do so has led to the loss of life and property in some large blazes, such as 2009’s Station Fire, which led Los Angeles County to suggest a series of reforms to the way the U.S. Forest Service handles fires.

“We don’t have the policy of ‘Let it burn, let it burn,’” Antonovich said Monday of the county Fire Department.

The Super Scoopers offer several advantages to the department, according to officials. With a water capacity of about 1,600 gallons, the ability to pull directly from natural bodies of water and a higher operational speed with a full load of water than other aircraft, the scoopers can quickly and efficiently respond to blazes, officials said.

These advantages make the craft well suited to fighting fires in the county, said Vince Pena, an assistant fire chief in the air and wildland division of the county Fire Department.

“Aircraft is part of our coordinated attack,” Pena said. “And the big thing we try to do in L.A. County is to have a fast turn-around.”

That turn-around time, the amount of time it takes for an aircraft to reload with water and return to the burn area, is particularly important for fires in remote areas, such as this summer’s Powerhouse Fire that burned north of the Santa Clarita Valley.

“In a very isolated area we can go and get the quick turn-around, get the water and hit the fire,” he said.
But despite their uses, it is not cost effective for the county to maintain the Super Scoopers year-round, officials say.

Early season
Normally the leased aircraft, which includes an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter capable of performing water drops, would be delivered later in the year, according to Daryl L. Osby, the county’s fire chief.

But with the season shaping up to be one of the more dangerous ones in the past decade, the Board of Supervisors allotted additional funding so the department could bring in its air reinforcements earlier than usual.

“Typically we wouldn’t have the contract air in service until mid-September,” Osby said Monday. “But we brought them in a month early; they were here mid-August” due to concern about the early fire season.
The season’s volatility is of particular concern to Southern California, Osby said, because of the region’s high population.

“We have a lot of lives at stake and a lot of property at stake,” he said.

Antonovich said the county’s contract for the aircraft is for $2.75 million and runs for 90 days.

“And we have resources available for contracts until the fire season is completely over,” he said.


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