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Political Landscape: Rep. wants flights OKd

May 27, 2010

Rep. Adam Schiff on Wednesday called for the U.S. Forest Service to consider repealing nighttime flight restrictions, arguing they are needed in the critical infancy of a forest fire.

Local officials have criticized the prohibition on nighttime water-dropping missions for allowing the Station fire last year to grow out of control in the initial days, eventually destroying scores of structures and killing two Los Angeles County firefighters.

Testifying before a Senate subcommittee, Schiff (D-Burbank) urged the agency to renew its use of water-dropping aircraft at night, contending that advances in technology have made it safer for helicopter crews to navigate dark skies.

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The Station fire tore through 160,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest and surrounding areas and destroyed about 90 structures. It cost nearly $100 million to contain — a significant chunk of the Forest Service annual firefighting budget.

The Forest Service, using night-vision goggles, operated night-flying, firefighting helicopters over the Angeles National Forest during the 1970s, but ended the practice for crews and contractors after a 1977 collision killed a pilot.

The agency and its contractors no longer have the training or equipment to fly at night, Schiff said.

"However, the technology to enable night flying has developed dramatically in the three decades since," Schiff said in testimony to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

Los Angeles city and county fire departments fly helicopters at night, and military contractors have built ultra-modern night-flying systems for use by troops overseas, with many of the technologies being developed for civilian use, Schiff said.

"Nighttime flights are not a silver bullet, but they can significantly improve our ability to effectively fight fires near urban areas," he said. "And by helping reduce the number of catastrophic fires, they may save lives and pay for themselves.

The lack of air drops frustrated foothill residents, who could do nothing but watch as the blaze raged, growing exponentially overnight.

"Anything that can be done to help fight fires better needs to be looked at and studied at this point," said La Cañada Flintridge Councilwoman Laura Olhasso, who was mayor at the time of the fire. "And if decided, changes should be made."

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