Copter pilot: ‘The fire spread so rapidly …’

first_imgSo as their ground-based partners battled up the rugged hills, Shakstad and two fellow pilots kept working. With a helicopter commander directing the action from a Bell 406 and a pair of Bell 412 Hueys dropping water, they switched on their Nightsun searchlights and continued their attack as the sun slipped below the horizon. The Los Angeles Fire Department’s Air Operations Section sent two Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks and a Huey to battle the blaze from above. Aided by night-vision goggles, county pilots flew in closer to the hills and ducked around power lines. “It’s inherently dangerous during the daytime; then at night it’s even worse,” said Capt. Erich Goetz. “Smoke, electrical wires, towers and tall buildings, things poking up from the hillside – it’s hard to see them. Night vision gives them some help, but it’s not the same as daylight.” Again and again, the choppers dropped their payloads of foam and water on the chaos below, flying sorties past 1 a.m. Wednesday. Then the pilots flew back to base, grabbed a few hours of shut-eye until the sun came up and did it again. The county Fire Department began using the night-vision system six years ago, allowing pilots some measure of comfort as they swoop through the smoke-clogged skies. As long as they agree with the incident commander that it’s safe to approach, they can keep fighting flames long beyond sundown. The city’s Fire Department uses night-vision equipment as well, but only on night rescues and medevacs. Shakstad said once city crews get the proper training for fire use, they’ll adopt the system for firefighting and follow their county counterparts closer to the blaze. In the meantime, they fly by the light generated by the flames and leave the close-in work to their goggle-aided colleagues. “It’s definitely a challenge,” Goetz said. “I think they’d prefer not to fly at night, but it’s a risk they’re willing to take.” By Wednesday afternoon, crews had the blaze sufficiently under control so the air units could begin scaling back. Shakstad, who’d been on duty since 7 a.m. Tuesday, was winding down. In the thick of things, he’d attacked the fire as a purely tactical problem, something to be confronted and eradicated as quickly and efficiently as possible. Now, he had time to consider the terrain he’d just flown over. “I was born and raised in L.A.,” he said. “It’s tragic that we’re losing that beautiful part of the park. It’ll take quite a while for all that to grow back.” [email protected] (818) 713-3738160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Chief Pilot Paul Shakstad hovered above Griffith Park, sadly looking on as the hills of his youth raged with fire. The Tuesday evening sun was dropping and the winds had picked up. Hot spots broke out – one, two, three, four, five fires all spread out across the hillside. The dry brush erupted like fireworks. Shakstad, who’s fought fire from the air for 28 years, nudged the control stick of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Bell helicopter and headed in. “The fire spread so rapidly and was so intense, we were just holding our own,” he recalled Wednesday from the Van Nuys Airport. “We’re up there, working, working, working, working – working our tails off and not getting ahead.” last_img

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