Skip to content
A Chinook drops its payload in Calabasas, Calif., in November.

A Chinook drops its payload in Calabasas, Calif., in November.

Photographer: Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/Polaris

To Fight Wildfires, California Turns to a Family With a Fleet of $8,000-an-Hour Helicopters

Coulson Aviation’s night-flying, water-siphoning Chinooks are on call to battle blazes on four continents.

The fire began shortly before dawn on Oct. 26, when a spark from a telecommunications line landed in the scrubby grass and sagebrush of Santiago Canyon. As the day grew hotter and the winds stronger, the blaze raged across hundreds of acres of eastern Orange County, Calif., filling the sky with smoke to the coast, 15 miles away. The fire intensified and spread west toward the residential neighborhoods of Irvine and Lake Forest; two firefighters were so severely burned they had to be induced into comas, ultimately spending months in the hospital. Brian Fennessy, the county fire chief, helped the police evacuate more than 75,000 residents and at times wielded an extinguisher to put out spot fires.

Southern California is the most technologically advanced area in the world for fighting wildfires. Fennessy could call on dozens of fire engines and more than 2,200 firefighters from Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties. He had on hand a firefighting air force of about a dozen helicopters and planes. But the Santa Ana winds fanning the flames made it impossible for the fleet to fly. Without the help of planes and helicopters, firefighters predicted that the Silverado Fire, as it came to be known, would roll over more than 2,000 homes within 24 hours.