A new tool has been added to help quell the spread of local wildfires.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Fire Air Support Unit announced the arrival of Copter 964, a 2004 Sikorsky HH-60L “Firehawk” helicopter on Thursday. The new helicopter has the ability to drop more than three times that of the current Bell Huey aircraft, can carry more than twice the amount of passengers or patients and can travel some 80 mph faster than the county’s current arsenal, according to officials.
The helicopter was purchased in 2019 and has been stationed in Alabama, where it underwent a retrofit with state-of-the-art avionics, paint, as well as a new rescue hoist.
While in Alabama, the Firehawk was tested, certified and transformed from a military grade helicopter to one configured to meet the missions of public safety for local residents.
“The Firehawk will join an already working fleet of medium-sized Bell Huey aircraft stationed out of the Santa Ynez Airport,” read a county Air Support news release. “In addition to increased stability when flying in high winds and being outfitted with top of the line night-flying equipment, Copter 964 brings a significant increase in working capacity for the ASU.”
The new equipment “significantly increases” lift capacity, which ensures more water can be delivered faster and more accurately. Authorities said this should help limit the spread of wildfires, associated impacts and costs.
The helicopter is capable of delivering 1,000 gallons of water in just one drop. For comparison, the Huey can only drop 300 gallons during one drop.
The Firehawk is able to carry 12 passengers, including two injured patients. The Huey can only carry five passengers and one injured patient.
Traveling at speeds up to 218, the Firehawk is expected to allow for quicker response times to incidents, as well as faster turnaround times for refueling and refilling with water. The Huey can travel up to 138 mph, authorities said.
“The Blackhawk helicopter will make its final conversion into becoming a Firehawk with the installation of a fixed belly tank to carry and disperse water for firefighting purposes,” officials said. “The fixed tank requires modifying the landing gear of the Blackhawk to raise the aircraft in order to accommodate a 1,000-gallon tank.”
Helicopters equipped with a belly tank can drop off ground crews of firefighters in the area of a fire, allowing them to immediately attack the flames. Helicopters with a bucket attached are not able to move crews around, meaning it would have to return to a staging area after dropping off the firefighters, before returning to the blaze.
The belly tank is considered unique from any other option at the county’s disposal, in that it is capable of firefighting, hoist rescues and medical evaluations without the need for any reconfigurations. It also allows the chopper to be filled while stationed on the ground, which is the standard practice for nighttime firefighting operations, authorities said.
The acquisition and retrofit was made possible by the fundraising efforts of Direct Relief International, which is based in Goleta. Direct Relief raised more than $1.15 million, which was used to offset the cost of the retrofit.
The Firehawk could be operationally ready to take to the sky as early as the fall of 2021. Before then, focused training will be conducted for the pilots, mechanics and other staff, and the belly tank will be installed.