From rescues to damage assessment: how helicopters helped combat the California wildfires

Following the 2018 Heli-Expo airshow in Las Vegas, Nevada, Airbus takes a look at how helicopters helped save lives during the California wildfires of 2017 – an effort that drew on aviation resources for everything from rescues to taking the damage’s toll. 

The list of wildfires in CAL FIRE’s “Large Fires” (+300 acres) database requires two pages, detailing sixty individual fires for 2017 that broke out across the state of California and into Nevada. By now, the figures are known, the superlatives (“worst-recorded season”) seem like understatements to the tragedy they describe. Lives were lost, more than 100,000 people were evacuated, all at a cost of more than $10 billion.

Yet the wildfires were contained, thanks to the incredible work of firefighters and their support crews. Supplementing the effort, rotorcraft found their unique qualities in demand as well. While their largest scope involved fighting the fires, perhaps the helicopters’ most visible contribution were rescues.

44 rescues in 48 hours

With aircraft buffeted by hurricane-force winds, crews were literally in the thick of the fires, from the Ventura County Aviation Unit hoisting an injured firefighter to safety, to the 46 rescues by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) in northern California.

The fires that burned Napa and Sonoma – the Atlas, Tubbs, and Nuns fires, among others – came suddenly, quickly, and at night. When distress calls began pouring in from residents trapped by the fire, the CHP responded, rescuing 44 people and seven pets in the first 48 hours, thanks to their access both to fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. As the emergency worsened, they flew low and used their H125 helicopters’ public address systems, spotlights and sirens to order evacuations, saving the lives of many more.

Recounting the rescue of an injured firefighter, the CHP Golden Gate Division posted on its Facebook page of 22 October: “The CHP officer/pilot placed [helicopter] H-30 into a 75 foot hover and a CHP officer/paramedic hoisted the injured firefighter to Helicopter 30, where he was flown to a waiting air ambulance.”

Airbus release