Drenching fires is an understatement with new helicopter - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Drenching fires is an understatement with new helicopter

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By News 8's Craig McKee

LAKE HODGES (CBS 8) - While homes are still being rebuilt in Rancho Bernardo from the devastating 2007 Witch Fire, SDG&E offers up a helitanker to keep future wildfires at bay.

"It will be available to go anywhere in the county should a wildfire erupt," said Mayor Jerry Sanders.

A special demonstration was held Thursday afternoon at Lake Hodges to show the enormous power and water dropping capability of the S64F helitanker, also known as 'Sun Bird'.

The Sun Bird is a workhorse designed to lift 25,000 pounds and deliver gigantic electric transmission towers to their destination. However, its new side job will be to help firefighters on the ground with its enormous water capacity and fast response.

There's a huge difference between what the Sun Bird brings to a fire and the current four helicopters used within the city and county.

"Let me put it into perspective -- those helicopters hold about 375 gallons each, this helicopter is capable of holding up to 2,500 gallons," said County Supervisor Ron Roberts.

The helicopter can use a snorkel and hover over small ponds with at least 18 inches of water to suck up and fill its tank. It can also fly at speeds of 30 miles per hour and take in water through the Ram Scoop, filling up the 2,500-gallon tank in about 45 seconds.

"You could probably drop up to 30,000 gallons an hour that could make an enormous difference," said Roberts.

Crews can also attach a 400-gallon bucket to the bottom.

This type of firefighting power comes at a hefty price tag. It costs $7,500 an hour to operate, something SDG&E says they'll pick up the tab for the first two hours anytime it is used to fight fires.

The County of San Diego then comes into play if more than two hours in a single dispatch are needed. Between the county and SDG&E a pool of $300,000 is setup to cover costs to operate the bird on extended hours.

"To make sure agencies are not hesitant to call on this asset when needed," said Chief Javier Mainar, of San Diego Fire and Rescue.

The Sun Bird was on loan during last year's fire season, however, didn't have a single call.

When not fighting fires, the helicopter is playing an integral role in building the 120-mile transmission line as part of the Sunrise Powerlink project. Construction is set to begin in October 2010.

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