National Aviation Week: Resilient & Ready, Together

Resilient & Ready: Regional Agencies Showcase Combined Aerial Firefighting Capabilities for National Aviation Week

Regional firefighting agencies stand ready to combat wildfires from the air ahead of peak wildfire season

SAN DIEGO, August 25, 2023 – In recognition of National Aviation Week, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) joined public safety partners and lead firefighting agencies at Gillespie Field to showcase the region’s collective strength and readiness to respond to wildfire threats quickly and safely from the skies. The combined advanced aerial lineup is a collective regional commitment between local agencies that has served as a powerful defense against increasing fire threats and helped prevent the spread of countless wildfires in San Diego County.  

This year marks the 20-year anniversary of the Cedar fire and serves as a somber reminder of the importance of partnerships, disaster preparedness and the resilience of our communities. As climate change continues to exacerbate wildfire risks, regional collaboration in aerial firefighting becomes even more critical in safeguarding lives, property and the environment.

Although he couldn’t attend, San Diego County Supervisor Joel Anderson said, “Nearly 20 years ago, the Cedar Fire blazed through my district and burned more than 270,000 acres of land. This devastating fire destroyed lives and homes, but despite the heartbreak that disaster showed us the resiliency of our community’s spirit. Today—San Diego County is more poised than ever to prevent a catastrophe like that from happening ever again. I am proud not only of the investments we have made in the latest aerial firefighting technology, but with our region’s commitment to working together collaboratively to contain and mitigate wildfires and natural disasters.”

Regional collaboration in aerial firefighting plays a crucial role in mitigating the devastating impact of wildfires. When multiple agencies unite to pool resources, expertise and specialized firefighting aircraft, they can effectively combat wildfires on a much larger scale.

“The 2003 fire siege was one of the most destructive set of fires in San Diego County’s history. There were three large wildland fires in the county at the same time, burning over 376,000 acres and tragically killing 16 people. A multi-agency regional response consisting of units from all over California came together to extinguish these fires and bring them under full containment nearly one and a half months later.” said CAL FIRE/San Diego County Fire Chief Tony Mecham.

CAL FIRE/San Diego County Fire, San Diego County Sheriff, the U.S. Forest Service, City of San Diego and SDG&E’s combined aerial assets work to deliver a powerful punch to potentially catastrophic wildfires, allowing first responders to swiftly respond to fire outbreaks, leading to faster containment and reduced spread of flames.

“Our arial assets have played a critical role in both fighting wildfires and assisting with evacuation messaging. While one helicopter is outfitted for fighting the fire, another has the capability of using a public address system to assist with evacuation messaging in the event of a phone or wireless outage,” said San Diego County Undersheriff Rich Williams. “The additional capability of conducting search and rescue operations with our CAL FIRE partners has proven to be invaluable. We are proud of the partnerships in the County and the collaborative teamwork displayed when responding to wildfire incidents.”

While known for its sunny skies and beautiful beaches, San Diego County is also home to mountains, rugged terrain and sensitive habitats which pose a significant challenge to ground-based firefighting efforts. Aerial assets have proven to be a game-changer to overcome these obstacles, allowing firefighters to have the high ground advantage and help preserve personnel safety when entering dangerous terrain that would otherwise be inaccessible on foot.

“Extinguishing wildfires as quickly as possible before they become large and destructive is paramount, and Wildland Firefighting aircraft is a key component of our arsenal; without it, we would not be nearly as successful,” said Cleveland National Forest Fire Chief Talbot Hayes.

The San Diego region is well-positioned for a swift wildfire response with up to 12 helicopters available during this year’s peak wildfire season, including CAL FIRE/San Diego County Fire’s one exclusive-use contracted helicopter, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s three, the United States Forest Service’s (USFS) two, two City of San Diego and five helicopters from SDG&E, including the Erickson Aircrane, which has the capacity to carry 2,650 gallons of water.

“The ultimate goal in keeping everyone safe is to keep fires small. The changes in our climate mean that fire season is a year-round concern for California and many of our neighboring states,” said San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Colin Stowell. “Which is why it’s so important that the agencies within our County support each other through sharing resources when necessary.”

The benefits of having helicopters equipped for aerial firefighting are numerous:

  • Rapid response: Helicopters offer speed and agility allowing quick deployment to wildfires.
  • Precise water and fire-retardant drops: These helicopters can drop hundreds to thousands of gallons of water or fire retardant directly on hotspots to slow the fire’s spread.
  • Access to remote areas and helitack support: Wildfires often occur in challenging, rugged terrain, which may be difficult for ground crews to access. Fire agencies and public safety partners rely on helicopters as an essential mode of transportation for firefighters and equipment, providing them with access to remote areas.
  • Aerial reconnaissance and communication: Technology onboard these aircraft can provide real-time information on fire behavior, direction and intensity, providing situational awareness for crews on the ground.

“At SDG&E, we believe teamwork and collaboration are essential in the face of any challenge, and as we all witnessed with Tropical Storm Hilary, that teamwork and collaboration goes well beyond fire safety and fire season as our City and County adjust to new climate realities,” said SDG&E Chief Operating Officer & Chief Safety Officer, Kevin Geraghty. “Our partnership with local, state and federal firefighting agencies exemplifies the spirit of unity and is a testament to our shared commitment to protecting lives, property and the communities we’re proud to serve.”