The fire began shortly before dawn on Oct. 26, when a spark from a telecommunications line landed in the scrubby grass and sagebrush of Santiago Canyon. As the day grew hotter and the winds stronger, the blaze raged across hundreds of acres of eastern Orange County, Calif., filling the sky with smoke to the coast, 15 miles away. The fire intensified and spread west toward the residential neighborhoods of Irvine and Lake Forest; two firefighters were so severely burned they had to be induced into comas, ultimately spending months in the hospital. Brian Fennessy, the county fire chief, helped the police evacuate more than 75,000 residents and at times wielded an extinguisher to put out spot fires.
Southern California is the most technologically advanced area in the world for fighting wildfires. Fennessy could call on dozens of fire engines and more than 2,200 firefighters from Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties. He had on hand a firefighting air force of about a dozen helicopters and planes. But the Santa Ana winds fanning the flames made it impossible for the fleet to fly. Without the help of planes and helicopters, firefighters predicted that the Silverado Fire, as it came to be known, would roll over more than 2,000 homes within 24 hours.
Weeks earlier, Fennessy had signed a contract with Coulson Aviation Inc., an aerial firefighting company based in British Columbia. Coulson had recently outfitted a huge Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter with equipment that could drop 3,000 gallons of water or fireretardant chemicals—about 10 times what the more commonly used Bell 412 helicopter can unload—in a little more than two seconds. Unlike a fixed-wing firebomber such as a Boeing 747 or Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which can carry similar loads, a Chinook doesn’t have to return to an airport to refill. It can suck up water from a river or lake and shuttle back and forth to a fire, dramatically multiplying the tonnage it drops per hour. “Three thousand gallons is an amazing load of water dropping out of a tank,” Fennessy says. To put it in perspective, that much water fills a 7-foot cube, weighs 12 tons, and carries enough momentum to seriously injure a person on the ground.
Coulson’s Chinook had another potential advantage: It could fight fire at night. The company had spent a decade working out how pilots could safely fly these copters low to the ground in darkness using night-vision goggles. It was time for a test. “The best time to fight fire is when the temperatures are down, the winds are down,” says Britt Coulson, who’s co-president and co-chief operating officer of the company with his brother, Foster. “At night you have no one else up in the air, and there’s much less smoke,” because the lower temperatures and higher humidity mean fires burn less intensely.
As evening set in on the 26th, the winds slackened in Santiago Canyon. Mel Ceccanti, Coulson’s director of rotorcraft flight operations, was in the Chinook’s pilot seat, ready for it to make its nighttime debut. First, a police copter with “forward-looking infrared” imaging equipment—night vision gear that can see through smoke better than goggles—took off to assess the situation. At about 9 p.m., police radioed that conditions were good. Along with two Bells, the Chinook took off from the former U.S. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, near Irvine, and headed for the blaze, which was approaching a housing development in Lake Forest. “I remember seeing the houses and then seeing the fire and thinking, ‘We’re not going to keep it out of these houses,’ ” Ceccanti says. “The winds were still very high, and the fire was still spreading fast. I looked at my co-pilot and told him, ‘There’s three days’ worth of work here. This is not going to be good.’ ”
Coming in over the flames, Ceccanti could feel the helicopter bouncing in turbulence. He held down the drop switch, and a curtain of water fell from the Chinook’s belly. Turning 180 degrees, he headed to a nearby pond to refill. Over the next two hours, he repeated the trip 21 times, returning to the airport when he was low on fuel before heading out again. An hour later, the fire attack coordinator radioed Ceccanti to say he was done. The development was safe.
The next day’s winds were light enough that the rest of the fire fighting squadron—aircraft belonging to the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Orange County, and the Coulsons—could join crews on the ground. In the end, no homes were lost in the Silverado Fire. The Los Angeles Times declared: The “Irvine fire was a recipe for disaster. It became a rare victory for firefighters in the grim year.” The Chinook made the difference. “If it hadn’t been for that helicopter,” Fennessy says, “we’d have lost a number of these homes.”
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