In the air: Tahoe Douglas fire chief seeks dedicated fire and rescue helicopter program for Tahoe Basin
There are currently no firefighting helicopters stationed within the Lake Tahoe Basin that are specifically dedicated to fighting fires in that region only.
Tahoe Douglas Fire Chief Scott Lindgren wants to change that.
Lindgren is currently seeking funding to build an emergency response fire helicopter station in his district in order to provide immediate response, day or night, to stop fires as soon as they begin so that they don’t turn into another Caldor Fire.
With a strong background in aviation working for the Cal Fire Amador-El Dorado Unit for around 33 years, Lindgren has a unique set of skills and knowledge for this project. He said that he has support from fire departments and districts from around the lake.
“All fires start from a little spark and then they grow from there. The easiest way is to put them out as quick as you can when they’re still small.” Lindgren said.
Lindgren said the belief that firefighting helicopters exist around the basin is a common misconception. The helicopters that fought the Caldor and Tamarack fires this past summer were contracted out and flew in from across the United States, and even Canada, which delayed response times significantly.
The closest Type 1 helicopters are located in Calaveras County, Tehama County, and Bridgeport — although the Bridgeport helicopter is currently stationed in Minden. Flying a helicopter from Minden directly into the Tahoe Basin could also be potentially dangerous because of the rapid increase in altitude, according to Lindgren.
The two helicopters, a station for them and the program would cost an estimated $60 million.
The problem with many of these helicopters is that they are a national asset — meaning that the helicopters go to fires throughout the United States wherever there is a need.
“The last time that my fire district on the Nevada side asked for a helicopter to come in, we were told that we were fourth in line,” Lindgren said.
The program itself, called “Operation – Save the Tahoe Basin,” would cost up to $60 million for two Type 1 helicopters and the construction of a helicopter base. The logic behind having two helicopters is that one would need to be available while the other is under maintenance.
The Caldor Fire cost over $250 million dollars to suppress, in addition to damage done to Sierra at Tahoe Ski Resort, homes, and other structures.
“It’s not expensive when you compare it to the cost of what the Caldor Fire did, or even the Tamarack Fire… those people will never be the same and those forests will never be the same,” Lindgren said.
Lindgren wants the helicopters to be flying by July 1 for the upcoming fire season. The program would run all hours of the day and every day of the year. He believes that the start-up cost will be the biggest expense, and that once the helicopters begin fighting fires the program would be able to pay for itself by being contracted out to other agencies around the basin, as well as using the extra helicopter for fighting fires directly outside of the Tahoe region.
“We’d want one to be here all the time, but with the second helicopter being managed appropriately with the rotations on the safety checks and maintenance… that would free up a helicopter that would be able to go out and help other areas… that would bring money back into the program,” Lindgren said.
The program would also be included in search-and-rescue scenarios for backcountry and rooftop rescues for high rise buildings. The helicopters could also be used for avalanche rescue or recovery due to their ability to navigate at night and detect warmth under the snow. Lastly, Lindgren said that the helicopters would also be able to quickly remove debris after big snowstorms.
Tahoe Douglas Fire has already raised $50,000 since it made the announcement over Thanksgiving, and is looking toward the community for support.
To donate or to find out more, visit https://tahoefire.org/helicopter.
Elizabeth White is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com
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