Local News

Jun 30, 2010 10:05 PM by Ariel Wesler

U.S. Forest Service could resume night operations

The U.S. Forest Service is deciding whether to make a key policy change affecting how it fights fires.

The Forest Service currently does not fly at night, but a Southern California lawmaker is pushing for the change. The Forest Service stopped the practice in the early 1980s because of the high cost and limited use, but pilots for Santa Barbara County Fire do make nighttime water drops.

Flying at night is already dangerous, let alone in the middle of a raging inferno--where pilots are fly low to the ground.

"Electrical wires, things like that, it's really hard to see those at night," said Matt Conant, a contracted pilot with the U.S. Forest Service.

The agency must determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks. Gordon O'Neill is a captain in charge of air operations for Santa Barbara County Fire. They've been making water drops at night for the last three years.

"There are times at night when your fire actually lays down. It is not as intense and we have the ability to get in there and do a lot of good work," O'Neill said.

And as part of team effort with those on the ground, dropping at night can save lives.

"We can hit this small fire now and stop it from becoming a Zaca Fire or a Gap Fire or a Tea fire," O'Neill said.

One of the reasons the U.S. Forest Service doesn't fly at night is that it doesn't have night vision goggles. Santa Barbara County Fire pilots say it's useful tool but has its limitations.

"The fire is very well lit up and defined in the goggles to the point where you lose detail behind it. . . .It amounts to pointing a flashlight in someone's face," said Blake Bliss, a Santa Barbara County Fire pilot.

The Forest Service contracts with hundreds of pilots nationwide and would have to spend millions upgrading equipment to ensure safety at night.

"You have to know where you can go and what you can do comfortably," O'Neill said.

Something the Forest Service says is not a fly-by-night decision.

The agency paid for a study to determine whether to reinstate their nighttime operations program. The study should be completed by the fall, but officials did not say when the changes,if any, would take effect.

Currently, Los Angeles County, Ventura County, and Kern county all perform nighttime water drops.

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