Angora fire sparks talk of Tahoe helicopter
Most Tahoe residents who witnessed the destructive Angora fire know that high wind and dry fuel conditions helped spread it quickly.
Now, some Tahoe Basin residents are asking if the presence of a Tahoe-based, firefighting helicopter could have made a difference, or even saved some of the 254 homes that were destroyed.
Nancy Kerry, vice president of public affairs for the South Shore Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, said her house was close enough to see the flames from the Angora blaze.
That’s when she first thought about the logic of having a helicopter stationed locally.
“Had a helicopter been there, it would have made a big difference,” Kerry said.
City Manager David Jinkens of South Lake Tahoe said he would like to see an extra line of defense added to Tahoe’s firefighting arsenal, but added that fuel reduction should receive greater emphasis.
Another forest expert downplayed the importance of having a helicopter based in the basin.
Spokesman Rex Norman of the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit said the Tahoe basin had several helicopters at its disposal at the height of the Angora fire.
“We have these air resources basically in our back yard,” Norman said.
Another issue is expense. Placer County Supervisor Bruce Kranz said the helicopter the county recently purchased for law enforcement and fire protection cost about $3 million.
And fire chiefs like John Pang of the Meeks Bay District wonder where the funding will come from.
“If money were no issue ” yeah bring it on,” Pang said in a telephone interview.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has an emergency air program that includes 22 air bases called air attack or helitack bases, from which the state agency can launch 37 aircraft to deploy against wildfires across the state.
“Aircraft can reach most fires within 20 minutes,” according to the agency’s Web site. The rapid air response is usually effective.
“We have a 98 percent success rate on initial attack [of a fire],” said Matt Mathes, a U.S. Forest Service regional spokesman, in an interview. “Lately the 2 percent have been getting big.”
But Mathes explained that aircraft alone can’t fight fires ” he likened that to a carpenter building a house with just a screwdriver. Mathes added that water-dropping helicopters can slow a fire’s progress so that firefighters and engine crews can put it out.
“That fire [Angora] occurred at the worst possible time at the worst possible place,” Mathes said. “No aircraft is going to stop a raging wind-driven crown fire. What really puts fires out is the ground crew.”
Still the extra air support could prove vital as it did in late June when a small fire broke out near Highway 267 in Kings Beach. Chief Duane Whitelaw of the North Tahoe Fire Protection District said his crew was first on the scene and requested air support.
“We requested help and we received the resource [a helicopter with water] within 10 minutes,” Whitelaw said.
The helicopter that responded was already in the area because of the Angora fire.
Other officials agree about the potential value of an air defense. Lake Tahoe Airport Director Rick Jenkins said he has been managing airports for 30 years and advises that a helicopter attack is the quickest way to keep a little fire from becoming a big fire.
From his point of view, Jenkins said the first 20 minutes are the most critical in stopping wildfires.