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By Miriam Raftery

San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarmon shakes
hands with CAL-FIRE Chief Howard Windsor as Mayor Jerry Sanders looks on

October 1, 2008 (El Cajon) -- “This
is a historic occasion,”  said Fire Chief Howard
Windsor with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL
FIRE).  Speaking at the San Diego Sheriff’s facility at Gillespie
Field in El Cajon, Windsor announced an agreement with San Diego Fire-Rescue
Department allowing CAL FIRE use of San Diego City-owned helicopters to fly
night firefighting missions on state wild lands in East County. 

Night flights were prohibited in 2003 when the Cedar Fire started around dusk.  The
fire spread through the night, ultimately becoming the worst fire in California
history.  After the Cedar Fire, flights were permitted up until a half
hour after sunset. 

“We proved we could do that,” San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarmon
said, adding that the new agreement will greatly improve fire protection for
the region by enabling small fires to be stopped with airpower in the early

Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, predicted  the agreement will “dramatically
reduce the likelihood that fires in the back country will reach homes and businesses
in San Diego.”

Windsor called the agreement a “huge paradigm shift,” noting that
night-flights to fight fires have been used only rarely elsewhere by the Forest Service. “We
are at the doorstep to evaluate the risk vs. gain,” he said, adding that
night-flights to combat fires could become the standard statewide in ten to
fifteen years.

Flights will be allowed throughout nighttime hours if lives, structures or
infrastructure is threatened--provided the pilot is familiar with the terrain
and wind speeds do not exceed 45 mph or gusts of 60 mph. Pilots will have final
determination whether a mission is safe to fly, Windsor added.

CAL-FIRE has a fleet of 23 air tankers, 11 helicopters and 14 airtactical
aircraft.  The state recently put a DC-10 on contract and added a second
DC-10 on call for use when needed.  In addition, an on-call DC-7 has been
added since last year’s fires, Daniel Berliant of CAL-FIRE told East
County Magazine

Miriam Raftery, editor of East County Magazine,  is a 25-year
journalist who has won national and local awards for her investigative
reporting and community journalism.  If you are indicated in syndicating
or reprinting this column, please contact editor@eastcountymagazine.org.

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