One common misconception is that there are helicopters based in the Lake Tahoe area that are dedicated to firefighting – that is simply not the case. Tahoe Douglas Fire Chief Scott Lindgren hopes to change things and make that a reality by basing firefighting helicopters in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
In order to prevent another fire like the Caldor Fire, Lindgren is searching for the funding to construct an emergency response fire helicopter station in his district which could provide an immediate response, day or night, to help stop fires as soon as they are started.
Lindgren’s background in aviation and 33 years of experience working with the Cal Fire Amador-El Dorado Unit gives him a strong skill set and unique advantage in this undertaking. Additionally, fire departments and districts from all around the lake have voiced their support of the project.
Lindgren explained that all fires begin small, and actions like dedicated initial attack responses help to extinguish them while they’re small and manageable and prevent them from growing larger and more dangerous.
The helicopters that battled the Caldor and Tamarack fires this summer were contract aircraft and came from all across the United States, as well as Canada, which significantly slowed their response times to those incidents.
Although the Bridgeport aircraft is presently at Minden Airport, the closest Type 1 helicopters are based in Bridgeport and in Tehama and Calaveras County. According to Lindgren, due to the rapid increase in altitude, flying a helicopter from Minden directly into the Tahoe Basin to fight a fire poses its own increased level of risk.
He estimates that his proposal for two helicopters, a station for them, and the budget for the initial funding of the program would cost around $60 million.
The difficulty around relying on federally contracted firefighting helicopters each season is that they are continuously being moved around the nation depending on where they are needed.
Lindgren mentioned that the last time an Incident Commander working a fire in his district requested a Type 1 helicopter, they were told that they were fourth on the list for receiving one.
Lindgren’s program is called “Operation – Save the Tahoe Basin.” The goal of which is to locally have two Type 1 helicopters (so that one is always available if the other is undergoing maintenance) and a station for them.
The suppression costs for the Caldor Fire alone are reported to be above $250 million, this doesn’t include the millions of dollars in damages that the fire caused either.
As Lindgren explains, the $60 million cost of his proposal is a mere fraction of the costs that are incurred when large damaging fires like the Caldor or Tamarack occur. It is even less costly in comparison when you begin to factor in any losses of life and the profound impacts that fires have on the lives of the communities they affect.
In order to be fully ready for the next fire season, Lindgren would like to see the helicopters flying by the first of July. It is also presently envisioned that the aircraft would be available to respond to emergencies year-round 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s Lindgren’s belief that the initial start-up costs would be the greatest, but that once the helicopters begin fighting fires the program could potentially pay for itself through contractual agreements with other fire response agencies around the Tahoe basin, as well as using the second aircraft to assist in fighting fires directly adjacent to the Lake Tahoe area.
Lindgren describes that through proper maintenance and aircraft availability management, having a second helicopter not only means that one is always available while the other is having maintenance work done – there is also the potential that the second aircraft could also be working in support of contract programs and bringing money back into the program.
Though the main purpose of the program would be firefighting, the helicopters would provide great benefits for backcountry search-and-rescue scenarios or rooftop rescues from high-rise buildings. The aircraft and mission equipment could also be valuable assets for avalanche rescue and recovery, and potentially even be utilized to help remove large debris such as downed trees after bad snowstorms.
Since the program’s announcement over Thanksgiving, Tahoe Douglas Fire has already raised $50,000 and is now asking the community for support.