Schiff, Feinstein, McKeon: Forest Service Will Start Nighttime Fire Fighting

Washington, DC —Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Buck McKeon today (R-CA) today announced the United States Forest Service will immediately begin the training and retrofitting of helicopters necessary to use helicopters at night to fight wildfires in Southern California. Previously, the Forest Service restricted aerial firefighting operations to daylight hours only.

In August 2009, the destructive Station Fire escaped efforts to contain it on the first night of the fire. A 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicated that the use of night-flying aircraft may have allowed the Forest Service to suppress the Station Fire on the critical first night. The Station Fire ultimately grew to become the largest fire in Los Angeles County history, burning more than 160,000 acres, destroying 89 homes and taking the lives of two fire firefighters in and around the Angeles National Forest (ANF).

“The Forest Service's decision to allow night flights is a welcome announcement. We will never know with certainty if night flying could have extinguished the Station Fire in those critical first hours, but I’m glad we will have a better chance in the future,” said Rep. Schiff. "With temperatures hitting triple digits this summer, it's hard for California residents not to worry that another fire could sweep through and devastate our region once again. This step today by the Forest Service is long overdue, but will provide an important new line of defense against fire for our neighborhoods."

“This is a long overdue, but a welcome policy change by the Forest Service,” said Senator Feinstein. “With the hot, dry conditions in California, wildfires are increasingly dangerous and difficult to contain. Attacking fires from the air at night can bolster firefighting efforts because temperatures are cooler, humidity is higher and Santa Ana winds die down. This new policy will allow the Forest Service to now use its aviation assets around the clock as they heroically battle to save lives and property in California.”

Representative McKeon said: “Each year wildfires threaten our homes, businesses, families and livelihoods. It is gravely important that we learn from past fires to make the changes necessary to help our firefighters in the future. We appreciate the efforts to address changes to policy that are needed to save lives. Allowing nighttime flights will help firefighters better do their jobs and fight these dangerous fires. We are pleased to see that the Forest Service has taken the GAO recommendations seriously and have begun to implement these much needed changes.”

Representative Schiff has long pushed the Forest Service to allow nighttime firefighting operations, if it could be done safely. After the release of the GAO report last year, Rep. Schiff wrote the Forest Service to urge it to complete its report on the agency’s night-flying operations. More recently, Rep. Schiff secured the inclusion of language in the report to the Interior Appropriations bill that once again called on the Forest Service to complete its night-flying study. Additionally, in separate letters to the Forest Service immediately after the Station Fire, both Senator Feinstein and Representative Schiff urged the Forest Service to update its firefighting tactics to allow for nighttime operations—provided flights could be conducted safely. 

The Forest Service is not the only firefighting agency in California to determine that nighttime aerial firefighting is cost-effective and can be done safely. Fire departments in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Kern Counties already have effective nighttime aerial firefighting programs in place.