In September, 5,280 acres burned north of Los Angeles between Interstate 5 and Lake Castaic
This article was first published in Fire Aviation.
A report by Southern California directors of the four-helicopter Quick Response Force (QRF) concluded that an aggressive air attack operating with units on the ground would likely limit the ultimate size and cost of the route. The fire started around noon on August 31, 2022 and eventually burned 5,280 acres north of Los Angeles between Interstate 5 and Lake Castaic. (download the report 3.2 MB)
This is a different incident from the Route Fire that burned 454 acres a few miles away along Interstate 5 September 11, 2021. You may remember that fire as the one where 13 firefighters who were becoming rapidly entrapped were crammed into two US Forest Service engines and rescued with only moments to spare. There were 23 bodies in the two engines, with seating designed for five each. Another 11 firefighters not quite as close to the flames were rescued by Los Angeles County engines.
All four QRF helicopters are crewed 24 hours a day and are equipped for night flight. With most of their primary funding provided by Southern California Edison, they are located in Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties. Two CH-47 Chinooks, one S-61, and a fourth S-76 are used for aerial supervision. Helicopters are sent as a unit along with a fireproof base and can drop water until the base is established. The fact that they can drop inhibitors 24 hours a day, when fixed-wing aircraft can’t make fire at night, could be a game-changer. During Operation Route Fire, the mobile base of Inhibitors did not have to travel, they were set up at their base about 10 miles from the fire.
The task given to QRF by the Los Angeles County Fire Department on the road fire was to stop the spread to the north. The S-61 was tasked with holding a specific position on fire, using water from nearby Lake Castaic. It averaged 696 gallons per drop.
The two Chinooks dropped an average of 2,434 gallons of water per drop and 1,896 gallons of inhibitor per drop. The three funnel helicopters flew an average of 9 hours each that afternoon and into the night, dropping 223,000 gallons of water and 55,000 gallons of dampers. S-76 was used for 17 hours. The total cost of the damper and flight time for the four ships was $403,950.
The report compares a fire route to the 1996 Marble Fire that started at roughly the same location at about the same time of day and time of year in similar weather conditions. By midnight, the Marble fire exceeded 10,000 acres and continued to spread for two or three days until it was stopped at 19,660 acres.
In contrast, the spread of the road fire was stopped at 8 am on the second day. The three helicopters dropped water and dampers most of the night to hold them at a ledge on the north side, allowing the manual and tractor crews to complete the line of fire.
It’s very difficult to compare the costs of putting out two fires that occurred 26 years apart, but the authors of the QRF report estimated that the cost of the Marble fire in dollars today would be somewhere between $70 million and $140 million. The cost of the road fire was $7 million to $8 million.