SAN DIEGO -
A helicopter capable of dropping more than 10 tons of water at a time will be available over the next several months to help fight area wildfires, according to San Diego Gas & Electric, which owns the heavy-lift aircraft.
The Erickson Air-Crane "Sun Bird" will be at the ready for firefighting assistance through the end of November, a stretch of autumn that frequently brings the most critical local fire conditions, including extremely dry atmosphere and gusty Santa Ana winds out of the east.
The powerful aircraft became available for fire-suppression duties on Saturday, according to terms of agreements among SDG&E and the city and county of San Diego, the utility announced. Similar contracts gave emergency-services personnel access to the helitanker at times over the last several years.
The copter, which played a significant role in construction of the newly activated Sunrise Powerlink electrical-transmission system in the East County, can carry and drop up to 2,500 gallons of water. By comparison, the next-largest helicopter in use in the San Diego area can handle a maximum of 375 gallons.
The municipal contracts designate the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department as lead agency in dispatching the chopper to fight serious fires.
"It is great news that SDG&E's air tanker will be available again this fall," SDFRD Chief Javier Mainar said. "The carrying capacity of the aircraft, which can make pinpoint water drops on wildfires, is a major game-changer, because it allows us to attack the fire early and hard."
The availability of the Sun Bird, which also can deploy chemical flame retardants, enhances regional firefighting capabilities "immeasurably," said Ron Roberts, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.
"We appreciate and applaud SDG&E for again stepping up to support the county's fire preparedness efforts," Roberts added.
The pilots and mechanics who operate the copter are provided by Erickson Air-Crane and will be able to put it to use for further electrical transmission work if it is not needed to fight fires, according to the utility company.
The agreements provide for a $300,000 operating budget, with SDG&E covering the costs during the first two hours of any new fire and the regional government agency paying for the second two hours.