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U.S. Forest Service Will Allow Helicopters To Fight Fires At Night

Photo by Andrew Meyers Photography via the LAist Featured Photos pool
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The U.S. Forest Service announced today that it will overturn a ban on flying helicopters at night to fight wildfires.

Local officials—including Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Palmdale, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif—have been pressuring the federal agency to rethink the decades-old ban ever since the 2009 Station Fire scorched 250 square miles of Los Angeles County. Critics charged that the ban on aerial nighttime firefighting enabled the Station Fire to spread at a critical moment, and today they expressed support for the new policy, City News Service reported.

"This is long overdue, but a welcome policy change by the Forest Service," Feinstein said, in a statement. "With California's hot, dry conditions, wildfires are increasingly dangerous and difficult to contain. Attacking fires from the air at night can bolster firefighting efforts because temperatures are cooler, humidity is higher and Santa Ana winds die down."

The U.S. Forest Service barred the practice of flying helicopters at night to fight fires in the 1970s after a pilot died in a tragic nighttime collision, but the Forest Service believes that night flying can be done safely.

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"We have made this important decision very carefully,'' Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told CNS. "We have studied night operations from every angle—risk management, business and operations—and we have concluded we can conduct night operations safely and effectively."

But if a big wildfire breaks out soon, don't expect fire-fighting helicopters to be working around the clock right away. The Forest Service says it still needs time to train its pilots, and it won't obtain a helicopter specifically designed for night-time flying until next year. This helicopter will be based in Southern California and used for fires that break out in the Angeles, Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests, as well as part of the Los Padres forest.