Travis County gets new tool to fight fires - MyFoxAustin.com | KTBC Fox 7 | News, Weather, Sports

Travis County gets new tool to fight fires

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A retrofitted Vietnam-era helicopter is Travis County's newest fire-fighting tool. The $2.2 million Huey is expected to help fight wildfires faster and more efficiently.

This Huey is the biggest aircraft in STAR Flight's fleet. It can carry up to seven people. It's also cheaper to operate than the others, at $700 an hour compared to $1100. And it's only mission is to fight wildfires.

Flying over a depleted Lake Travis, the UH1H or STAR Flight 4 demonstrates how it's expected to fight wildfires faster and better.

First, the snorkel fills up the 325 gallon tank in about 30 seconds. That's three times the water capacity of the other helicopters. The bigger, fixed tank also means the Huey can fight fires in urban areas.

"We feel more comfortable flying around in an urban environment with that because we don't have to worry about the bucket coming off," said Casey Ping of ATC STAR Flight.

The three doors underneath the helicopter allow how much water can be released.

"We don't have to drop the water all at one time, we can vary. If we just need a little water on one spot, we can just drop it and release it and it will still retain the water and not drop all at once," said pilot Willy Culberson.

Cameras on the Huey and on one of the flight crew members give firefighters on the ground a better idea of how to tackle fires.

"When they can look at the fire see the fire and see what it's doing, they can determine tactics, ok no, we're not going to do that, we can see where its hitting there, it's not worth attacking the fire there, we're going to let it burn to this point," said flight paramedic Stephen Maier.

During the Labor Day wildfires in 2011, STAR Flight couldn't help Bastrop County where thousands of homes were destroyed and two people killed.

STAR Flight's three helicopters were busy fighting wildfires in Pflugerville, Steiner Ranch, Spicewood, and Leander.

"We would have needed this and a whole lot more for that kind of siege because there were so many fires going on," said President of the Capital Area Fire Chiefs Association, Ron Moellenberg.

Travis County Emergency Services District 2 Fire Chief, Moellenberg, responded that day.

"In Northeast Travis County, at one point, we had the three present helicopters committed to the fires. As you know, Spicewood, Steiner Ranch air craft resources became nonexistent by the time you started to try to attack all the fires," he said.

Chief Moellenberg says the Huey could have slowed or even stopped the some of the Labor Day fires because it wouldn't have needed to refuel or refill the water tank as frequently.

The $2.2 million aircraft comes at a time when the federal government predicts a grim scenario for this summer's fire season.

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