Fire helicopter crew practicing for the inevitable


Instead of water bombing fire-ravaged hillsides, emergency crews have shifted focus to saving lives in raging, flooded riverbeds.

With more winter storms in Southern California’s horizon, Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Air Operations unit used a sunny Wednesday morning to their fullest advantage to train for water rescues in Santa Clarita.

The whirring of Copter 15, a yellow and white fire Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter, was prominently heard throughout Canyon Country between 10:30 a.m. and noon as it dipped in and out of the still-soggy Santa Clara River.

A hoist cable lowered an attachment hook from the multi-functional metal bird as a crew member leaned out the aircraft to monitor the procedure.

Copter 15, a Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter drops part of a 300-foot hoist cable to the ground near the Santa Clara River Wednesday. (Austin Dave/The Signal)

Pilot Ethan Jensen lifted the copter into the air and flew low and slow above the riverbed, eventually pausing about 200 yards away from the Whites Canyon bridge near Soledad Canyon Road.

Small children in cars passing on the bridge of the Santa Clara pointed excitedly and waved to the helicopter as it bobbed and growled in the air.

“Copter 15 to L.A., put 20 more on the timer,” the crew radioed to their headquarters.

The blades spun a little faster and the loud behemoth raised and flew over the bridge.

“What are they doing,” a silver-haired woman who had parked to catch a glimpse of the action near Camp Plenty Road and Soledad Canyon Road asked.

“I hope everyone is alright.”

They were.

With Jensen at the helm, Santa Clarita residents Michael Dubron and Jeff Buterbaugh together practiced for a scenario becoming more likely for Los Angeles County. As an onslaught of rain and snow drenches a thirsty Southern California, flooding during a typically dry La Nina year has quickly become a concern for county officials.

On Sunday, a young woman driving in Placerita Canyon near The Masters University found herself and her blue Nissan Versa swept away by swift-moving storm water. Fortunately, she escaped without injury.

“We’re trying to emulate a swift water rescue,” Dubron, a crew chief stationed with the helicopter crew confirmed by phone.

“It’s a complex mission and there’s not a lot of operators in the world that do what we do with the type of aircraft that we have.”

The 300-foot cable the copter used is more commonly attached to injured or lost hikers from mountainous or rugged terrain.

Today, to the average Joe or Jill on the street, the rope wasn’t lifting anyone.

For the air operations crew, at least, there was indeed a nameless person in need of help.

Typically, a rescuer is lowered into the water and floats downstream to the victim. The victim is secured to a line and hoisted up.

“With the river still having water in it, it gives us a good opportunity that’s less hazardous than if the river were full,” Dubron said.

Though Santa Clarita did not require a swift rescue team throughout the weekend, the crew was stationed at Fire Station 129 in Lancaster Sunday.

As much of the county was pummeled by rain and snow and pelted by hail, the crew trained for the worst case scenario.

But, warnings were issued.

Deputies with the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station’s Crime Prevention Unit scoured the riverbed on Jan. 18 to warn individuals illegally camping in the area of an incoming series of powerful storms.

Coupled with those efforts, Los Angeles County Public Works and Fire issued similar warnings via social media days ahead of each storm system and, in some cases, same-day alerts.

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