As more severe, destructive fire behavior wreaks havoc in California, the Los Angeles County Fire Air Operations Team fights the flames from the air.
Before the 1950s, all fires were fought from the ground. But the L.A. County Air Operations Team revolutionized firefighting methods, and they say they were the first agency in the nation to battle blazes from up above.
Senior pilot Mike Sageley had 22 years of experience flying in the army, and now as a member of the Air Operations team, he believes the aerial fire attack changed the game.
“I equate firefighting from the air, especially the large fire here, as very similar to a combat battle,” Sageley said. “[It’s] very dynamic. It’s always changing.”
The Air Operations are headquartered at Whiteman Airport’s Barton Field, where firefighting pioneer Rolan Barton made history by becoming the first person to put a water tank on a helicopter.
“His initial mission was to put a fixed tank on an aircraft for wildland firefighting and now it’s an industry standard throughout world,” Battalion Chief Robert Gaylor said.
They now have a fleet of 10 firefighting aircrafts, and the county requires there to be a minimum of three aircrafts, plus the crew, ready to go around the clock.
The team covers the area from Mount San Antonio, at 10,060 feet, all the way to Catalina Island, covering 75 miles of coastline. They’ve had to evolve to meet changing needs of a county of 10.1 million people, a population larger than 41 states.