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Helitankers Arrive in Time for Peak Fire Season
Three of the biggest fire-fighting aircraft on earth come together at heliport 69Bravo in a gracefully choreographed maneuver that enables all of them to refill their 3,000-gallon water tanks at the same time, in just 90 seconds. The helitankers are leased from Coulson Aviation by SCE and on loan to Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange County during peak fire season. 69 Bravo is an essential part of the aerial fire-fighting strategy not just for Los Angeles County, but for the neighboring counties. The airships can be at the site above Topanga in minutes and can refill in seconds. Photo courtesy of 69 Bravo, submitted by Craig Laplsey

Helitankers Arrive in Time for Peak Fire Season 

The three massive helitankers that are the core resources for the Quick Reaction Force, are back in town. This high-tech, highly efficient aerial firefighting team will be stationed in Southern California throughout peak wildfire season.

These three mammoth airships recently made their presence felt above Topanga during exercises at the 69 Bravo helistop. It’s an annual training Los Angeles County Fire Department event that takes place in October, when the specialized aircraft, leased from Coulson Aviation, arrive in Southern California for the season. The helitankers are based in Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange counties, one for each county, but they work together to provide integrated support, and if required, all three can be deployed together.

Big Rock resident Kraig Hill captured this amazing image of a helitanker in flight during the recent drill at 69 Bravo, and he’s had first hand experience with how effective these big airships are.The helitanker stationed in Los Angeles County at Van Nuys Airport was brought in to help suppress the 2021 Tuna Canyon Fire, which could easily have spread through Saddle Peak, across Los Flores and into Big Rock, but was stopped quickly thanks to the night flight capability and large capacity of this enormous Chinook helicopter. Photo: Kraig Hill

The Quick Reaction Force is one of the top fire fighting and fire suppression forces in the world, and that’s not an exaggeration. Each helitanker has a capacity of up to 3000 gallons of water or fire retardant gel and can hover-fill over 69 Bravo’s above-ground water reservoirs—otherwise known as pumpkins—in just 90 seconds. Unlike most other firefighting aircraft, they can operate day or night.

The County’s fleet of Firehawks and other, smaller fire suppression aircraft are critically important, too. They only carry 1000 gallons, but their size and maneuverability is an asset. Photo: Kraig Hill

The program includes cutting edge aerial intelligence gathering aircraft that provide detailed real-time data, and the helitanker team works with other fire-bombing aircraft and with ground crews, providing essential data, with the goal of preventing small fires from becoming large.

Los Angeles County’s Helitanker 55 is a Chinook CH-47, one of the largest fire-fighting aircraft in the world. It’s based at Van Nuys airport and can be at the coast in minutes. The fire department has included the helitanker as a first response resource that responds to all vegetation fires, which means almost instant air support during any wildfire incident. 

Night vision and the capacity to carry 3000 gallons at a time made a huge difference during the 2021 Tuna Canyon fire that broke out in the middle of a July night. In a two-hour period, the Los Angeles County helitanker dropped an estimated 37,600 gallons of water, working alongside the county aircraft. Refilling was done at nearby 69 Bravo at the top of Topanga Canyon, and the fire was stopped, despite rugged and challenging terrain, before it could spread into the Saddle Peak neighborhood, or farther west into Malibu.

The helitanker program is funded by Southern California Edison in an effort to prevent catastrophes like the 2018 Woolsey Fire. Currently, the helitankers are only in Southern California during peak fire season, but there is a strong push to keep them here all year. That’s good news for residents, as we enter what all the indicators suggest will be another severe drought season, and increasingly have to come to terms with the concept of wildfire as a year-round threat.

Two CL-415 “super scoopers” are also part of Edison’s fire suppression fleet and have been participating in drills. They specialize in dropping “PhosChek”, a bright pink fire retardant powder. This year, the aircraft arrived just in time to battle the Route Fire, north of Castaic, which erupted with astonishing speed and ferocity on the last of August. Photo: Kraig Hill

Having the helitankers and a resource like 69 Bravo has been described as a game changer, that makes everyone living in the vicinity of the Santa Monica Mountains a little safer, but it’s still essential to be prepared for wildfire and to have an evacuation plan. It’s estimated that it could take as long as seven hours to fully evacuate Topanga. Getting out early, especially for families with animals, small children, elderly relatives or individuals with disabilities, is still the best way to survive a wildfire emergency. Even with resources like Helitanker 55 on call this is going to be a challenging year, everyone who lives in the wildland interface needs to be prepared.

Learn more about 69 Bravo at

**Know your zone. Los Angeles County has broken up its part of the Santa Monica Mountains into emergency zones for evacuation preparedness. It’s important that everyone knows what Zone they are in. We’re including the Topanga map here—helistop 69 Bravo is the yellow dot on the left side of Zone 1—but there are also maps for other parts of unincorporated Los Angeles County, as well as the cities of Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Malibu and more. Visit

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