Aviation Unit

Phone (909)351-6118



Fire Suppression by the Riverside Police Aviation Unit
Lt. Chuck Griffitts

In addition to the crime-fighting mission of the Riverside Police Departments’ Aviation Unit, we also assist the fire department with fire suppression. Police Pilots are trained in external load techniques, specifically water dropping, after gaining 2,000 hours of Pilot in Command time in the MD500’s.Routinely, Air One responds to vegetation fires during the warmer months and typically we will have one of the helicopters equipped with the tanks, hoses and nozzles needed to be a self contained fire fighting unit. After the call for assistance is received from the fire department, the Pilot in Command will take the equipped helicopter over the fire and access whether using the helicopter is warranted or whether it will be effective.

Once the PIC has determined that the helicopter will be useful and capable of the mission, a landing zone is located. It is usually in a field or desolate street with a nearby fire hydrant. The observer in the aircraft departs and becomes the on ground water tender. The observer attaches hoses and prepares the sight for the helicopter. Once the helicopter lands, it is airborne again full of water with two minutes. Some of the examples of what we do outside airborne law enforcement are given in the remainder of this article.

During the afternoon hours of September 9, 1994, the Riverside Fire Department requested assistance from our helicopter unit in battling an out of control, windswept, brush fire in the Hawarden Hill area of Riverside. One home had been damaged and others were in imminent danger of being destroyed.

The Riverside Police Departments’ Aviation Unit has three MD500 helicopters that are capable of dropping 125 gallons of water from a tank mounted on the belly of the aircraft. The Aviation Unit responded by equipping a helicopter and Police Pilot John Fehrs launched on the mission that would keep him in the pilots’ seat for several hours.John performed over forty precision water drops along residential fence lines to stop the rapidly advancing fire. Flying conditions were extremely difficult as temperatures remained at 100 degrees, compounded by heat and smoke from the fire, wind and steep terrain.

Officer Fehrs’ skillful performance under difficult circumstances was instrumental in preventing substantial loss of homes and property.Citizen response was tremendous. Some of the accolades by the residents included, "The response of the police department to the 911 calls and its control of the 70 acre fire scene was immediate. The helicopter water drops in near vertical terrain were on target...the wind swept fire surrounded our home within minutes and within an hour threatened numerous others. All homes were saved." Another citizen wrote to a local newspaper stating, "My sincere compliments to the Riverside Fire Department and the Riverside Police helicopter emergency water drop service for controlling and putting out the brush fire in the hillsides off of Hawarden Drive and Arlington Avenue. In the intense smoke and temperatures, the firefighters prevented the fire from getting close to the homes at the top of the hill. The police helicopter pilot did a fantastic job pinpointing his water drops again and again."

On May 23, 1997, Officer Marcus Smail was leaving the hangar on his Friday, starting his weekend. He saw that Officer Gary Williams and Sergeant Chuck Griffitts had taken hoses and nozzles to a helicopter equipped with a water drop tank and inquired if he could help.

Officer Smail outfitted a second helicopter with an additional water drop tank and along with Sergeant Griffitts in the other helicopter began dropping water on a major river bottom fire in the Santa Ana River. The fire burned 340 acres and several out buildings as well as one home.

Due to the wind and the intensity of the blaze, it was necessary at times to fly through the smoke to make water drops. On two occasions, Officer Smail’s helicopter engine stopped running due to the smoke and was re-ignited by the on board re-ignition system. Undaunted, Officer Smail put public safety above his own and continued to drop water.Water drops were made on rooftops, on palm trees and in back yards of homes abutted up to the river bottom. Officer Smail and Sergeant Griffitts dropped water for nearly three hours without relief and between the two helicopters, 90 drops were made.

Since the fire, several persons from the neighborhood of the fire have made it clear that they strongly believe that the homes were saved by the actions of the water dropping helicopters. As on 79 year old man said, "I was on my roof and trying to hose it down, it wasn’t working because the water would evaporate from the heat of the forty foot flames before it could hit the roof. The helicopter dropped water on my roof and me. After that all I had to do was keep it wet. I want to find that pilot and give him a big kiss."In a letter to the Chief of Police, another citizen wrote thanking Air One and Air Two for battling the fire in the Santa Ana River bottom. He wrote that in his opinion the aircraft played a significant role in saving many homes along the bluffs. He was particularly impressed that both air units were made available for fire fighting.

Another fire on June 30, 1998, in the early afternoon, engulfed a large area of Sycamore Canyon. Eventually it’s tolled was 700 acres. The fire was very fast moving with winds in excess of 15 miles per hour. The fire was bordered on all sides by large residential tracts. The Riverside Fire Department requested assistance from the Riverside Police Department’s helicopter to make aerial water drops on the fire. Police Pilots Marcus Smail and James Vanderhoof responded. Together, as a team, they performed 50 water drops on the fast moving fire that was in an area inaccessible to ground crews.Pilot Marcus Smail conducted the drops in a precision manner, although hampered by the high winds, rough terrain and dense smoke. Pilot Smail had to navigate over rough terrain and often down into canyons to make the water drops. Pilot Smail had to deal with the fire, smoke, high winds and reduced visibility. James Vanderhoof assisted on the ground by refilling the water tank after each drop and was responsible for quickly getting the helicopter airborne with minimal downtime. This was extremely important as the fire was spreading rapidly and ground units were not able to get a handle on it.

A fire captain called the hangar to praise the aircrew on their performance. He was the incident commander and coordinated with Pilot Smail. He said that at one point the fire got away from the ground crews and that Pilot Smail’s ability to drop water with precision on the fire line saved the day. The water drops slowed the fire enough that the ground crews were able to regain control.A witness to the above operation was a professional helicopter pilot and flight instructor, Pete Gillies. Pete is recognized industry wide as an expert pilot. He possesses knowledge and experience in fighting fires with helicopters, as well as other specialized aspects of helicopter flying. In Pete Gillies opinion what he saw was "expert, perfect, precise water drops that mirrored the pioneers of the technique, the Los Angeles Fire Department."

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