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US Forest Service Allowing Night Aerial Firefighting

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LOS ANGELES (CBSLA/AP) — Congressional representatives said the U.S. Forest Service has decided to allow nighttime aerial attacks on wildfires in Southern California.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Congressmen Adam Schiff and Buck McKeon announced the change of policy Thursday.

The Forest Service has previously restricted aerial firefighting operations to daylight hours for safety reasons.

KNX 1070’s Margaret Carrero talked with Cal Fire Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson, who said the Forest Service will give the state more flexibility in dealing with specific fire threats.

“Any time you have another tool in your toolbox, that could be a benefit, but just like every tool, it may only fit in certain parameters,” said Hutchinson. “It’s not something you need all the time, but when you need it, it’s nice to know it’s available.”

The issue has been under discussion since the 2009 Station Fire burned 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest.

Some critics of the firefighting effort contend it could have been contained when it was just a small blaze if nighttime aerial firefighting had been allowed.

A Government Accountability Office report last year found the use of night flying aircraft could have controlled the fire on the first night.

Bronwen Aker’s home survived the Station fire, but she lost nearly two dozen neighbors.

“As far as my neighborhood, it’s a too little too late.  Yes.  I do believe water drops could’ve made a big difference,” she said.

“This is long overdue but a welcome policy change by the Forest Service,” Sen. Feinstein said in a statement. “Attacking fires from the air at night can bolster firefighting efforts because temperatures are cooler, humidity is higher and Santa Ana winds die down.”

Last year, the Forest Service announced an agreement with local firefighters that made it easier to get water-dumping helicopters into the air at night over the fire-prone Angeles National Forest. The deal eliminated a requirement that homes or other structures must be in immediate danger for foresters to request help from the county’s night-flying helicopters.

Water- and retardant-dumping aircraft rarely extinguish wildfires. That job falls to ground crews. Embers, brush and grasses on the forest floor can continue to burn even after a water or retardant drop.

Harbour stressed that the expansion into night flying will not guarantee that every wildfire is extinguished promptly, in all circumstances. He said studies suggested that night flights could be effective in about 30 percent of the wildfires likely to be faced in the region.

Fire Chief James Hall said the new policy will start sometime next year, with one water dropping helicopter based in the Angeles National Forest.

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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