As wildfires become more prevalent and ferocious, many in the fire service are looking for better ways to battle wildland blazes. One factor that is almost universally accepted is that the vast majority of fires diminish in severity overnight, when temperatures decline, humidity increases, and winds die down. As a result, a few fire agencies have embraced Night Vision Goggle (NVG) use by their aerial firefighters. This series of articles will examine where this innovation stands now and what might be coming in the future.
NVG can trace its roots to the Second World War, when both the Germans and the U.S. deployed a few dozen “Generation 0” night-vision systems toward the end of that conflict. But it wasn’t until the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War that such devices came into more frequent use. From these early “Generation 1” units (which required at least some small illumination, like moonlight, to work), more robust units (“Generation 2”) came into use during the first Gulf War and were a marked improvement over the earlier types. By the beginning of the 21st century, an even better family of devices, known as “Generation 3,” were available, but are being superseded by the latest military models, variously known as “Generation 3+” or “Generation 4” – devices that are much lighter, have better optical characteristics, and greater longevity than previous generations.
In parallel with the military’s use of NVG in warfighting, firefighting agencies have also experimented with such technology. “In 1973, Congress approved special funds for the USDA Forest Service (USFS) to investigate new techniques that would reduce the severe wildfire threat that existed nationwide,” said Dennis Hulbert, former USFS Regional Aviation Officer for Region 5 and one of those involved in shepherding this new technology along in that agency. “A project was initiated called ‘Helicopter Night Operations’ and assigned to the San Dimas Equipment Development Center.”
But USFS wasn’t the only agency conducting experiments. Los Angeles County Fire Department, in conjunction with San Dimas, jumped in as well. “On June 16, 1974, the first night water drops were made on a wildfire on the Angeles National Forest with Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Bell 204B helicopter, equipped with a fixed tank,” Hulbert continued. “In 1976, the USFS had its first NVG helicopter, a Bell 212 stationed at Rose Valley Helibase on the Los Padres National Forest, and in 1977, a second Bell 212 NVG ship was stationed at Tanbark Heliport on the Angeles National Forest.”
There were a few problems, however, with the first deployments. “Generation 2 NVGs were in use and they had limited functionality; narrow 40° field of view, visual acuity equal to 20-50 vision, ‘full face’ design that prevented looking at flight instruments, susceptibility to ‘blooming’ (loss of visual image) when confronted with sudden high lighting or reflected glare on the windscreens,” said Hulbert.
Not long after these programs were implemented, a mid-air collision nearly stopped them in their tracks. “In 1977, an L.A. County Fire helicopter and the USFS Rose Valley helicopter collided while inbound to a heliport on the Angeles National Forest,” recalls Hulbert. “Both helicopters were operating with NVGs, and one pilot perished while others were critically injured.”
Although L.A. County Fire suspended their program, USFS did not at first. “From 1978 through 1983, USFS operated the two NVG ships,” explained Hulbert. “However, due to costs and limited use, they discontinued the NVG program in 2005.”
With the dawn of a new century, Los Angeles County Fire treaded carefully back into NVG use. “They started back up in 2001 with limited use and returned to a working NVG program in 2005,” said Hulbert. Other city/county fire agencies have also pursued NVG as we’ll see later on in the article.