Choosing a Chopper? | SierraSun.com

Choosing a Chopper?

Andrew Cristancho
Sierra Sun

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunA helicopter drops a bucket of water on the Interchange Fire that burned near Tahoe Donner last Wednesday. Officials are wondering whether a helicopter stationed in Truckee could quicken response times to local fires.

Since late June when the Angora Fire destroyed 254 homes in South Lake Tahoe, many basin residents have wondered why a firefighting helicopter isn’t stationed somewhere in the Tahoe area.

The absence of local air support puzzled one veteran firefighter after moving to Lake Tahoe.

“The one thing that struck me when I first moved here was there was no firefighting water helicopter in the basin,” retired Los Angeles Fire Department air battalion Chief Tom Pandola said earlier in the fire season.

Now, with such recent blazes as the Washoe Fire on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe that claimed five homes, and the 80-acre Interchange Fire that threatened Tahoe Donner, some officials are renewing talks about a firefighting helicopter possibly being stationed at the Truckee airport.

General Manager David Gotschall of the Truckee Tahoe Airport said the airport district is engaged in a feasibility study and is conducting discussions with North Tahoe Fire Protection District regarding acquisition of the specialized equipment.

In addition to fire suppression, Gotschall said an aircraft stationed at Truckee could have multiple uses including forest thinning and search and rescue. He mentioned that in addition to the North Tahoe district, other districts have expressed interest, including Meeks Bay and Incline Village.

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“My theory is if you can knock these things down when they’re an acre [with water from a helicopter based nearby], wouldn’t you be better served than when they get to be multiple acres [by the time a distant helicopter arrives]?” Gotschall asked.

Chief John Pang of the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District said he’s never been at a fire when he did not want a helicopter flying overhead, but that the availability comes down to funding. He said four-fifths of the small fire district’s budget goes toward personnel salaries, leaving little room to buy a $3 million helicopter.

Truckee Fire Protection District officials never hesitate to call for air support during a fire, said Chief Bryce Keller.

“That way you keep the fire small,” he said.

According to Meeks’ Pang, the U.S. Forest Service picks up the tab for fighting wildland fires such as Truckee’s Interchange Fire, but sometimes individual districts are required to foot the bill for its own ground crews if the fire is a structure fire. The fear of paying does not deter a firefighting effort, Keller said.

“We at Truckee Fire believe in an aggressive and strong initial response,” he said.

Keller added that he would support the concept of a firefighting helicopter at the Truckee Airport but discussions regarding the helicopter are informal for now.

A United States Forest Service helicopter is stationed 35 miles west of Truckee on Highway 20 at Whitecloud Helitack base. According to public affairs officer Ann Westling of the Tahoe National Forest, a pilot needs about 12 minutes to fly the helicopter to Truckee.

CalFire has two water-dropping helicopters. Both are approximately a 45-minute flight away, one in Colombia near Sonora, and the other in Vina north of Chico.

The Nevada Division of Forestry stations two firefighting helicopters in Minden at the Minden Tahoe Airport, which is approximately a 15-minute flight from Truckee, according to State Fire Management officer Mike Dondero.