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A San Diego County Sheriff’s wildfire helicopter fills up with water at the new Rapid Aerial Water Supply on Sept. 14 in Fallbrook. Photo by Steve Puterski
A San Diego County Sheriff’s wildfire helicopter fills up with water at the new Rapid Aerial Water Supply on Sept. 14 in Fallbrook. Photo by Steve Puterski
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Regional fire, water officials unveil ‘helo-hydrant’ to combat wildfires

FALLBROOK — A joint collaboration between three local agencies is improving firefighters’ ability to combat wildfires.

The Rainbow Municipal Water District, North County Fire Protection District and CalFire unveiled its Rapid Aerial Water Supply (RAWS) system, or “helo-hydrant,” on Sept. 14 in Fallbrook. The semi-permanent tank is stationed off Wilk Road on a hill next to a massive potable water tank serving residents.

The RAWS is a 5,000-gallon tank that can be filled in minutes allowing helicopters to fill their tanks rapidly to attack a fire. The radius is up 10 miles for a quick-strike response, according to Tom Kennedy, general manager of RMWD.

The tank cost just $150,000 and took about nine months from inception to complete, although the actual construction only took several weeks, said Hayden Hamilton, who sits on the RMWD Board of Directors.

“This is the first project specifically designed for helicopters fighting fires,” he added, also noting there is one in Orange County. “We are also talking about where else we can put other tanks.”

Tony Mecham, CalFire San Diego chief, said the need for facilities like this is imperative as the county’s wildfire season is nearly year-round. Mecham said the evolving fire season puts added pressure on fire crews, many of whom have been battling raging wildfires in northern California.

Mecham, along with Keith McReynolds, fire chief of the NCFP, said this facility will help firefighters quickly attack fires, especially in the backcountry. Both noted big fires over the past 20 years including the Rice Fire in 2007 and the Lilac Fire in 2017.

The fire chiefs said this is the beginning of wildfire season for the county and this resource is much needed.

“It’s huge,” McReynolds said. “Small lakes and ponds, they dry up this time of year. Vegetation is very dry and parched.”

As another benefit to nearby residents, the water station may also help policyholders maintain their insurance plans and make new policies more affordable.

According to an inewsource story, homeowners’ insurance policies are being dropped at increasing rates across the county for those who live near open spaces or a canyon — locations that put homeowners at greater wildfire risk and make insurance policies more expensive.

The Rainbow Municipal Water District, North County Fire Protection District and CalFire unveiled its Rapid Aerial Water Supply (RAWS) system on Sept. 14 in Fallbrook. The system allows for quick refills for helicopters fighting wildfires. Photo by Steve Puterski
The Rainbow Municipal Water District, North County Fire Protection District and CalFire unveiled its Rapid Aerial Water Supply (RAWS) system on Sept. 14 in Fallbrook. The system allows for quick refills for helicopters fighting wildfires. Photo by Steve Puterski

In Bonsall, there has been a nearly 4% increase of dropped insurance policies from 2015-19, and with 90 policies dropped in 2019. Fallbrook residents saw a 6.1% increase with 1,232 policies dropped by the insurer in 2019, inewsource reported.

The city of Valley Center saw one of the biggest increases in dropped policies in the county with a nearly 12% increase with 828 policies dropped in 2019, according to inewsource.

Also, Hamilton said RAWS is a semi-permanent structure so it could be moved if needed, but the RMWD board is looking at additional sites for installation for more tanks. But there are challenges, according to Hamilton, such as finding a suitable location for helicopter access on a higher point.

Regardless, the tanks just need access to at least an 8-inch water main to fill at the rate established by RAWS.

“The pilots do most of the work on choosing the location,” Hamilton said. “We’re already looking at where else we can put these things.”

Also, Hamilton, Kennedy, McReynolds and Mecham, said with the addition of the tank, other entities will be looking at installing tanks throughout the county.

The county has two helicopters owned and piloted by the Sheriff’s Department with a seat reserved for a CalFire responder on both, Mecham said. One helicopter is based in Fallbrook and the other is in El Cajon.

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