Night Firefighting Flights Return

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Friday, August 17, 2012 - 12:30pm

U.S. Forest Service has reverses policy banning after-dark flights for firefighting helicopters.

As wildfires continued to burn across Southern California on Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service announced that it will in future again employ an effective but potentially dangerous tactic in fighting fires: nighttime aerial flights for water- and retardant-dropping aircraft.

The announcement, which drew praise from Southern California officials, marks a reversal for the federal land management agency that controls much of the region's fire-prone mountain ranges.

Nighttime flight restrictions during the devastating 2009 Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest had been criticized for limiting firefighting ability and allowing the blaze to spread to 250 square miles.

"We have made this important decision very carefully," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a press release. "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."

The Station Fire broke out Aug. 26, 2009, and became the largest fire in Los Angeles County history. It destroyed 89 residences, 26 commercial properties and 94 outbuildings.

Two firefighters died during the blaze.

Critics of the federal agency's firefighting efforts said that the blaze could have been more effectively managed with the aid of nighttime flights, but the service had previously restricted the tactic to daylight hours for safety reasons.

Last December, a review from the federal Government Accountabilty Office found that the Forest Service needed to clarify its policy on how to use firefighting assets.

The report states that after the Station Fire, the Forest Service changed several policies related to communicating with non-federal agencies -- such as the Los Angeles County Fire Department -- about night-flying operations. In 2010, the service began allowing other agencies to perform night flights with single-engine craft such as helicopters, the report states. The service also established a National Night Flying Operations Working Group, the document says.

The new policy means that the Forest Service will operate its own night-flying aircraft exclusively to fight fires.

It comes after a study that identified 130 "mitigation measures" for a safe nighttime helicopter opertations program, the Forest Service said.

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