Firefighting chopper now available in the North County - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Firefighting chopper now available in the North County

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - The North County has a new resource when it comes to fighting wildfires. A firefighting helicopter will be stationed at a North County water treatment plant on days of elevated fire risk.

Air support is crucial during wildfire season, but a lot of the planes and helicopters used are kept at Gillespie Field, making it harder for them to get to certain places. That's why fire officials teamed up with SDG&E and the Olivenhain Water District to place a helicopter in the North County.

Capable of dropping 350 gallons of water per use, a SDG&E Gulf Helicopter will be positioned on high risk days at Olivenhain Municipal Water District's treatment plant, where it will give North County crews easier access to air support.

"Those fires in May were really a game changer for a lot of us here today and one of the things we realized is that we were going to have to do more than we were already doing,” explained John Sowers with SDG&E.

Dozens of homes were lost during those wildfires, as they raged on throughout the North County over the course of several days. One of those areas was Harmony Grove, which sits just a few miles from where the helicopter will now be based.

"You know, there's a lot of work by engine companies and crews on the ground to combat these fires, but they have to have support from the air, so it would have definitely been a benefit for us, no doubt,” said Deputy Chief Mike Gibbs with the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Department. “Fire officials say back in 2003, San Diego had zero helicopters, but with this one, they now have seven. Not to mention the fixed wing tankers that Cal Fire brings when we experience large fires."

Fire representatives say they are more prepared than they've ever been, which couldn't have come at a better time. October is traditionally the busiest month in terms of wildfires.

The contract to have this helicopter stationed in the North County is good through 2014. But officials say they hope to keep it going beyond that. The helicopter will be available to all North County fire agencies.

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