Krissy Waite – The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.
Jun. 26—The Marin County Fire Department will have its own helicopter to fight wildfires this season.
The department has reached a deal with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. as part of a new trial program. PG&E will lend one of its UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to the department to use in fighting wildfires from July 1 to Oct. 31, the peak fire season.
The helicopter is equipped with a water tank and will be stationed in the North Bay. The fire department will control its use in fires, while PG&E’s contractor, PJ Helicopters, will handle operations and maintenance.
“It would be a miss if we didn’t take them up on that opportunity and agreement,” Marin County fire Battalion Chief Graham Groneman said.
PG&E will pay for all costs related to maintenance. When the helicopter is in flight and fighting a fire, it will cost the county $9,500 per hour. According to Groneman, PG&E will cover the helicopter costs for the first two hours of a fire and up to 40 total hours for the season. For fires that occur on state or federal land, the county will seek reimbursement.
“The reality is that it’s really only a three- to four-month time period where we have that real fire danger here,” Groneman said. “Why not capitalize on the equipment that already exists out there and use it to combat fires during that time?”
While the Marin County Fire Department has access to aircraft through different partnerships and contracts with state and federal agencies, this will be the only one under its direct control. Aerial support is sent to vegetation and most mid- and high-level fires.
“So we’re sending them to every fire,” Groneman said. “And as you can imagine, with the amount of fires we’ve been experiencing … this resource is extremely valuable when we have those runs of high fire danger and high fire activity.”
“Having that helicopter centrally located really is a benefit not just to Marin County, but to our neighboring counties, the state and the federal government for rapid initial attack fire suppression when aerial support is needed,” Groneman said.
The fire department was selected for its extensive knowledge of the area and work on wildfire safety, PG&E spokeswoman Angela Lombardi said. Additionally, the county is considered high risk for wildfires and is served by the utility.
“By collaborating with Marin County fire, we can leverage their deep knowledge of the landscape, wildfire patterns, and community so together we can maximize the effectiveness of our firefighting efforts in a high risk area,” Lombardi said.
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