More than 4 million acres of Californian land have burned from raging wildfires this year, an astonishing record for a state that, in 2020 alone, has seen five of the six largest wildfires it's ever recorded. Up and down the west coast, wildfires have blanketed cities and towns with choking smoke, blotting out the sun. And, in early October, California’s August complex fire expanded beyond one million acres of destruction, elevating its classification from a megafire to a new milestone never used in modern history, “gigafire.”
In all, California’s vast, out-of-control wildfires—numbering over 8,400 this year—have displaced untold thousands, destroyed more than 9,000 structures and killed at least 30 people.
Yet, another figure stands out: Since fires began burning early this year, close to 400 people—and at least 16 dogs—have been evacuated by air from burning forests. The California National Guard has routinely called on helicopter and helicopter services to aid in deadly search and rescue missions, and helicopter rescue teams have played an integral role in wildfire rescues this year.
In fact, while helicopters are pivotal in aerial firefighting, their range, agility and precision in harrowing situations make them an instrumental tool in disaster relief situations of this kind.
Descending into disaster, equipped.
“The smoke was so thick, you couldn’t see anything—but you could hear the blades of the helicopter,” Daniel Crouch, a labor day vacationer who was trapped by a fast-moving wildfire in Yosemite National Park, told The New York Times in September. “That thump-thump-thump of the helicopter out in the distance.”
Crouch was one of many civilians saved by a daring helicopter search and rescue mission earlier this fall, when the California National Guard airlifted hundreds of civilians from the national park in a harrowing operation that tested the life-saving capabilities of helicopter rescue.
Like Crouch, many of those trapped had arrived for a routine Labor Day weekend at a crowded campsite near the Mammoth Pool Reservoir, where many vacationers go to swim, boat and jet ski. While campers had heard word of a potential fire late in the morning, flames surrounded the lake by mid afternoon. And by the first signs of fire—when ash began falling to the ground—escape was near impossible.
One camper interviewed by The New York Times, Sal Gonzalez, said that he and many others boating on the lake sped away at the first sign of flames in the mountains. Back in the parking lot, they couldn’t locate their vehicles. Their cars had been torched, and there was no way out. With roads blocked, many raced back into the water to flee from dampening smoke and falling hot ash. “We were stuck,” Crouch, who sought cover in his car and on the lakeside’s beach, said in an interview. “We thought we were going to be there for several days. We had no knowledge of any kind of rescue.”
After dark, two helicopters descended on the group. “People started cheering,” he said.
Over the course of the night—and multiple times over that weekend—helicopters flown by military veterans—like many of Helicopter Express’ experienced pilots—rescued over 200 stranded campers in Yosemite National park, attempting several descents before successfully cutting through the dense smoke to land safely. Dressed in camouflage and equipped with night-vision goggles, the pilots hurriedly rushed the stranded campers on their helicopters, making three round trips throughout the night to complete the mission.
“Every piece of vegetation as far as you could see around the lake was on fire,” Chief Warrant Officer Kipp Goding, one of the helicopter pilots, told The New York Times. “I’ve been flying for over 25 years,” he said. “We get occasionally shot at overseas during missions. It’s definitely by far the toughest flying that I’ve ever done.”
While astonishing and heroic, September’s scene in Yosemite has become commonplace over the last few years, especially as forest services—like the United States Forest Service, which has contracted Helicopter Express since 1995—have begun heavily relying on helicopters to rescue citizens caught in increasingly fast-moving wildfires.
In 2018, for example, the Los Angeles Fire Department air operations helicopter unit released a video of two pilots answering a call to help three people trapped in the Woolsey Fire, an inferno that burned more than 100,000 acres across southern California.
Descending into the fire zone, the pilots balanced on a narrow ridge for just long enough to pull off the rescue, encumbered by dwindling fuel and the complex downdrafts of a mountaintop landing. In all, the video depicts the challenge of search and rescue during a wildfire—where wind, smoke and heat complicate the already complex aeronautics of helicopter maneuvering—and the skill involved in expert helicopter piloting.
Why are helicopters best equipped to handle wildfire search and rescue missions?
Helicopter wildfire search and rescue hasn’t always been a go-to option for civilian rescue during a damaging natural disaster of this sort, though fire conditions in recent years have necessitated the precision helicopters offer. “It’s so hard to see where the mountains are and to know where the obstacles and hazards are,” Lt. Col. Daniel Anderson, a forestry fire pilot, told The New York Times about helicopter rescues, despite their increasing necessity. For example, earlier this year a California wildfire in Santa Cruz County tore through a forested community even before evacuation orders were issued, requiring several air rescues.
How do forest services and helicopter companies assess a search and rescue disaster relief situation?
In confronting a dangerous wildfire situation where search and rescue is needed, government agencies and helicopter services like Helicopter Express confront several questions about the safety of the mission and the efficacy of helicopter use, like:
- Are conditions adequate for communication with all rescue personnel, or do communications barriers, like dense smoke that hamper radio signals, exist?
- Is a safe landing site available within a reasonable distance of the target site
- Does the urgency of the situation require immediate action?
- Is the risk associated with traversing the terrain greater than the risk of using specialized helicopter rappel, short-haul or hoisting techniques?
- Do extreme environmental factors prevent air travel?
The conditions of a wildfire sometimes push the limits of these conditions, and helicopters are often the only aircraft equipped to handle these challenges. For example, where daytime flight operations for most aircraft are limited by minimum weather conditions—like one mile of forward visibility and 500 feet of clearance below a cloud ceiling—helicopters in mountainous and special-use search and rescue missions are capable of withstanding—and permitted to operate under—maximum sustained winds of 35 miles per hour and one-half mile forward visibility.
Beyond these advantages, helicopters are often ideal search and rescue units for wildfire missions for a number of reasons:
- Their slow speed and ability to hover make them the most effective vessel for targeting small areas constricted by surrounding fires or limited landing capabilities
- Their ability to access land in hard-to-reach locations—like mountains and dense forested areas—enable them to administer aid and collect survivors long before ground units can arrive
- Their size, power and agility mean they’re equipped to perform well in the hazardous environments wildfires present, like high altitudes and high temperatures
- They’re designed to brave the elements and remain stable in the crosswinds and perilous wind patterns often caused by large fires
- They’re equipped with necessary hoisting devices to enable fast search, rescue and delivery operations
What kind of rescue techniques can helicopters employ?
While many wildfire search and rescue missions involve landing quickly and safely on the ground to collect stranded survivors, helicopters, like those in Helicopter Express’ diverse fleet, are equipped to perform several kinds of rescue techniques where ground landing isn’t a safe option.
Generally, helicopters are able to perform:
- Hoist rescues, a widely used and efficient procedure for insertion and extraction from a rescue site, in which a cable and hoist system is used to raise or lower a target from the ground and into a hovering helicopter.
- Helicopter rappels, often used in wildfire suppression, in which helicopter personnel are able to quickly descend from the aircraft to tend to stranded citizens before helicopter hoisting or landing.
- Helicopter short hauls, often used in search and rescue missions with injured parties, in which helicopter personnel or a rescued survivor is suspended on a fixed line and airlifted for a short distance where landing is not possible.
At Helicopter Express, providing life-saving search and rescue services is a core mission.
Helicopter Express has provided service to a number of forest and government organizations, like the National Park Service in Grand Teton National Park, a challenging environment made up of 310,000 acres and 50 miles of wild and treacherous river. And our pilots are prepared to work closely with groups of rangers and other vital units to perform critical, lifesaving missions.
Over the years, we’ve performed several short-haul rescues in the most tumultuous of environments and aided wildfire containment efforts through aerial firefighting. In 2017, for example, Helicopter Express dispatched three modified Bell 205A-1 helicopters, a Kaman K-MAX aircraft and 10 of our highly-trained employees to fight wildfires in Chile, where fire destruction was catastrophic.
While providing search and rescue services has always been a tenant of our core mission, raging wildfires have stressed the centrality of this essential service—and we’re ready to meet that challenge.
“Lifesaving missions are a priority,” shares Jon Bourke, Director of Quality Assurance at Helicopter Express. “We have to be able to go from one mission to another rather quickly. Say, for example, we’re out on a USFS fire with both helicopters and we get a rescue call. So, we fly back, put our park service hat on, and now we’re working with the rescue rangers.”
Our fleet is prepared to be on the scene within hours of receiving the call—ready, equipped and experienced.
Our diverse fleet of search and rescue helicopters and skilled crew members are ready and able to get to work at a moment’s notice. And our highly trained pilots—many with military backgrounds—are experienced in supplying food, water, medicine, personnel and other essential resources to expertly aid those stranded in remote locations or to communities in crisis.
Helicopter Express’ aircraft are fully equipped to meet the critical needs of search and rescue in a wildfire context. Our helicopters’ bubble windows provide a clear view of the fire and designated drop areas or rescue locations, and our export pilots and crew members are highly experienced in determining where, how and when it is safe to strategically land a helicopter when performing a high-stakes aerial rescue.
If you’re interested in learning more about our contracted disaster relief services, contact our Atlanta-based helicopter service experts today.