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On The Front Lines; Helicopter Pilots Brave Often Dangerous Conditions To Fight Wildfires On Central, South Coasts

(KCLU photo by Lance Orozco)
A Ventura County Air Unit helicopter makes a water drop on the Thomas Fire in December of 2017

Choppers often allow initial attack on blazes in rugged, inaccesible terrain

Helicopters made water drop after water drop on a Westlake Village brush fire burning in a canyon dangerously close to hundreds of homes. A fleet of helicopters helped stop the flames before they could spread to the houses, or into nearby canyons. They were able to help stop the April inferno before any homes were damaged.

It can be tough, grueling, and dangerous work for the helicopter pilots, as they often fly into rugged, smoke filled terrain, often as the first ones to attack raging wildfires.

Jim Dalton is a Ventura County Air Unit veteran. He’s been flying choppers for more than half century. Dalton became a helicopter more than 50 years, flying in Vietnam. After stints with the Oxnard Police Department, and in commercial aviation, he joined the Ventura County Air Unit as one of its helicopter pilots in the mid-1990's. The Air Unit is a joint Fire Department-Sheriff's Office operation which fights fires, takes part in search and rescue efforts, and help law enforcement with things like search and pursuits.

Dalton says pilots have to be good at multitasking, because when you’re in the middle of fighting a fire, there’s a number of things you have to watch. The veteran pilot says admits while there is some danger, pilots follow a number of basic steps to minimize unnecessary risks. Dalton says one example is you never flying uphill while making a water drop.

But, even with planning and precautions, there is that element of risk. He says pilots like the ability to be there to make a difference in an emergency, whether it's helping to protect homes from a ranging fire or rescuing someone who's injured in the county's backcountry.

Dalton is technically retired, but not really. He’s just flying fewer hours. He’s spent much of time helping get Ventura County’s newest helicopters up to speed. For year, the county has been flying refurbished Hueys, the same type of helicopters he flew a half century ago in Vietnam.

The county just took delivery of two new Firehawks, joining its four Hueys. They are upgraded Blackhawk helicopters, which can carry nearly triple the water of a Huey, and can carry ten firefighters at a time to areas inaccessible by vehicles.

Because the 71-year-old is officially retired, he can only work 960 hours a year, and he's almost at that number for this fiscal year, which resets July 1st. But, he says between now and then, if he's needed for a fire, they'll work something out. He says he's ready to go.

And, with a poor rainfall season, helicopter pilots on the Central and South Coasts could be in for a long summer, and fall. Fire officials say we have the potential for a rough high fire season, and that means the choppers may be spending a lot of time in the