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The largest wildfire in California history serves as a reminder that the trend of increasingly larger and faster-moving blazes may require new methods and strategies to fight in the coming years. About 14,000 firefighters are on the lines fighting fires throughout California, including crews from 17 other states as well as New Zealand and Australia. The state has already spent more than one-fourth of its annual emergency fire fund for the fiscal year that began only July 1.
One of the challenges is fighting the fire during the night. Night-flying by fire agencies in California could grow, reflecting technology advancements and the increasing severity of wildfires in the state.
Cal Fire currently lacks the capability to fly nighttime fire drops with its fleet of 50 aircraft. That could change once the agency gets a dozen new Black Hawk helicopters, including some capable of flying with night vision goggles.
The night aerial firefighting that does occur in the state is focused on rotary-wing aircraft operated by fire agencies in several counties of Southern California.
Even before Cal Fire takes delivery of its new Black Hawk copters, it is getting a helping hand in fighting the Northern California wildfires from the California Army National’s Black Hawk copters fitted to drop water or retardant.
Jeanette Eaton, regional vice president for North America for Sikorsky, said the increase in wildfires in recent years has generated interest on the part of government agencies for the commercial version of the military’s Black Hawk known as Firehawk.
Meantime, Lockheed Martin developed a special fire version on its large C-130 aircraft that is capable of night firefighting. The LM-100J FireHerc supports night vision goggles after modifications were made to the panel lights according to cnbc.com.
The company has looked at various sensor technologies for the FireHerc that borrow from the defense company’s knowledge of its fighter and missile programs. Sensor data and processors could fuse together information and display it to pilots so they can get a real-time view of the terrain and fire environment.
The U.S. Forest Service currently doesn’t conduct nighttime firefighting using fixed-wing aircraft but has one helicopter in California contracted for night vision goggle flying to fight forest fires.