Fighting wildfires is a constant struggle in Southern California, but a Connecticut manufacturer has a way to help.
The Firehawk aerial firefighter, a converted Black Hawk helicopter that’s fitted with a 1,000-gallon water tank, has been in operation for at least a decade. And over the next five years, Stratford-based Sikorsky Aircraft expects to deliver 20 new Firehawks to California, according to a company spokesperson.
Wind can pose a big problem for aerial firefighting. “Once you release the water, the wind takes it,” said Mike Sagely, a senior pilot for the air operations unit of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which already has three Firehawks and two more on the way from Sikorsky.
But with the Firehawk, Sagely can drop water on a wildfire just 60 feet above the flames -- sometimes even lower.
“We generally have to maneuver a little bit lower and closer to the fire, and it increases your chances of accuracy,” Sagely said.
He said the Firehawk is especially reliable in conditions that are ripe for the rapid spread of fire, generally as a result of Santa Ana winds that come in from the canyons to wreak havoc in the hills.
“One, because the amount of water that it carries, and two, because it can handle the windy and turbulent conditions very, very well,” Sagely said.
Jeanette Eaton, Sikorsky’s regional president for business development in the U.S. and Canada, was once told there weren’t enough wildfires in California for a local agency to need the Firehawk. But in recent years, such fires have become more widespread. In 2017 and 2015, the U.S. experienced its largest acreage burned by wildfires in more than 50 years , according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
“With environmental conditions changing, with urbanization, with a number of things that are driving these -- they’re seeing fires today that they’ve never seen in the history of LA County and in the whole state of California, so the timing is right for it,” Eaton said.
She said the Firehawk proved to be a clutch firefighting agent during last November’s devastating Woolsey fire, which burned nearly 97,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
“The fire was spreading two to three football fields per second,” Eaton said. “It was just unbelievable, and because of those turbulent, windy conditions, LA County with their Firehawks were the only aircraft that were able to fly in the first 48 hours.”
Depending on the customer’s need for augmenting the Black Hawk, Eaton said a Firehawk usually costs between $19 million and $22 million.