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Supervisors approve new agreement with SDG&E for helicopter use

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved a new agreement with San Diego Gas & Electric which will allow the county to use an SDG&E helicopter for firefighting purposes as necessary.

The supervisors’ 5-0 vote June 15 authorized the director of the county’s Department of Purchasing and Contracting to enter into negotiations with SDG&E to utilize its S-64E helitanker in support of county firefighting efforts, to enter into a contract for up to 12 months upon successful negotiations and determination of fair and reasonable terms, to include five option periods which could extend the agreement until 2016 if all five options are exercised, to amend the contract as needed to reflect changes in services and funding, and to execute any related agreements or documents. The supervisors also directed the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to integrate the S-64E helitanker into the county’s aerial fire protection program and to take any additional actions necessary to award the contract.

“We’re coming into the heart of fire season here,” said Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. “We need every bit of help we can get.”

In October 2009 the county supervisors approved an agreement with SDG&E to use the utility company’s leased S-64E helitanker, known as the Incredible Hulk, in the county’s aerial fire protection program. Because SDG&E had leased that helicopter, the agreement concluded when SDG&E’s lease terminated.

SDG&E is in the process of purchasing its own S-64E helitanker, which will be called Sunbird and will be used primarily for heavy-duty work. SDG&E once again offered to allow the county to use the helicopter for fire suppression efforts and also to provide up to $150,000 to pay for a portion of the flight time. The agreement calls for the county to fund up to $150,000 for flight time during fires, creating a total of $300,000 annually which at a cost of $7,500 per hour equates to 40 hours of flight time.

The county will make the helicopter available to all local cities, fire districts, and other agencies at no additional cost provided that funding for flight time is available. When possible the county will seek reimbursement from the state or Federal governments for the flight time expenses incurred while fighting fires.

The S-64E helitanker can carry and unload more than 2,600 gallons of water per trip and can refill its tank for the next drop in less than a minute. It can stay airborne for 2 1/2 hours before needing to refuel. The helicopter’s drop potential will depend on the location of a water source near the fire but can reach 20,000 to 30,000 gallons per hour and 70,000 to 80,000 gallons per fuel load. The helicopter is capable of flying at night.

“This is just another, I think, heavy tool in our toolbox,” said Supervisor Bill Horn. “Unfortunately we’re probably going to have to use this.”

Five public speakers expressed concern that SDG&E is obtaining the helicopter for the planned Sunrise Powerlink transmission line which could actually create a fire hazard. Some of the speakers noted that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection wouldn’t fight a wildfire within 1,000 feet of the transmission line, creating a 2,000-foot segment straddling both sides of the line which could place communities in jeopardy.

“It’s sad irony because Sunrise actually poses extreme danger risk. It creates a severe risk of catastrophic wildfire,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

Jacob noted that her support of the helicopter did not translate into support for the Sunrise Powerlink project. “We need to do everything we can to strengthen our firefighting resources,” Jacob said.

“We’re not going to turn down a resource,” Jacob said of the agreement with SDG&E. “We would be irresponsible if we did that.”

Supervisor Ron Roberts noted that aerial firefighting resources protect more than rural areas. “We live in a whole community of canyons and other places that are almost like little wicks,” he said.

“I think it would be foolish not to take advantage of it,” said Supervisor Greg Cox. “It will give us an added layer of fire protection.”

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