SDG&E’s new “Sun Bird” helicopter to assist San Diego firefighters

City and County officials and firefighters join utility to announce new cooperative agreements that will benefit the region

Aug 19, 2010

Media Contact:
Art Larson

San Diego Gas & Electric

(877) 866-2066


        SAN DIEGO, Aug. 19, 2010 – San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) today was joined by local firefighting agencies and city and county officials to announce two new cooperative agreements that will make the company’s new Erickson Air Crane helicopter  available to San Diego County fire agencies to assist in fighting large wildfires throughout the county.  The S64F helitanker, dubbed “Sun Bird,” was recently purchased by SDG&E to construct much of the Sunrise Powerlink project, the 120 mile transmission line that will bring renewable energy to San Diego.

        “While this highly specialized air crane helicopter will play a key role in the construction of a powerline that will provide electric reliability and green energy to the region, it also can serve our community as a critical asset in fighting wildfires,”  said Michael R. Niggli, president and chief operating officer of SDG&E.  “Although we hope there will never be the need to deploy this helicopter during a fire emergency, we’re proud to be able to partner with fire fighting experts to prepare for the threat we face here in San Diego.”

        The heavy-lift helicopter was purchased by SDG&E as the most cost-effective means to transport and construct more than 50 percent of the approved transmission line’s steel lattice towers.  The air tanker will also be equipped with firefighting capabilities and has the capacity to carry and drop up to 2,500 gallons of water on a fire.  In comparison, the largest helicopter in San Diego now only has the capacity to carry 300 gallons.

        “This helicopter will be a valuable resource in our on-going efforts to defend against the threat of wildfires,” said Jerry Sanders, mayor of San Diego.  “By sharing this tool with firefighters both this year and last year, SDG&E is demonstrating tremendous civic leadership.  They deserve our thanks and praise.”

        This firefighting–capable helicopter will be available to assist in fighting wildfires in the region through two cooperative agreements that will establish protocols for its use during critical fire emergencies.  The agreements are similar to the ones prepared last fire season with SDG&E’s leased air crane.  The first Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between SDG&E and the City of San Diego establishes that the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department will be the lead agency that would dispatch the Sun Bird to a wildfire upon request, beginning September 1 or sooner if needed.

        “The sheer capacity of water this air tanker is capable of dropping will be paramount to our ability to suppress a wildfire early in the game,” said Chief Javier Mainar, of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.  “Like last fire season with the leased air crane, we feel more prepared for what Mother Nature may send our way.”

        The second MOU between SDG&E and the County of San Diego establishes a $300,000 operating budget for fire season, with SDG&E covering the cost to operate the helicopter during the first two hours of any new fire and the County of San Diego covering the second two hours.  The pilots and mechanics, which will be provided by Erickson Air-Crane, are trained to maneuver this type of helicopter for both Sunrise construction and precision water dropping to target wild-land fires.  Because of this agreement, San Diego County will not have to lease a helicopter to be on stand-by during fire season.

        “Having a heavy lift firefighting helicopter available for the next couple years is a dramatic improvement in fire response to our region.  SDG&E has set the bar high for corporate partnerships with local government in the united effort to reduce property loss and save lives during Wildland Urban Interface fires,” said Chief Augie Ghio, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association.  “This is only one of many public safety partnerships that we have in this region with SDG&E.”

        SDG&E has received approval from all three lead agencies; the California Public Utilities Commission, the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Agriculture’s United States Forest Service, to move forward with the construction of the nearly $1.9 billion, 120-mile Sunrise Powerlink transmission line.  The new power line will increase the reliability of the power grid and transport renewable energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal power, from remote areas in southern California’s Imperial Valley to residences and businesses in the San Diego region.

        The 500-kilovolt Sunrise Powerlink electric “superhighway” will have the capacity to carry at least 1,000 megawatts of clean power, or enough energy for 650,000 homes.  The project will create 400 to 500 direct construction jobs and provide more than $100 million in annual energy savings.

        By using a helicopter rather than traditional ground equipment to install the towers, SDG&E will reduce the need for approximately 40 miles of access roads which will minimize corresponding environmental impacts.  In all, 232 of the 436 total structures will be constructed using the helicopter.  Additionally, the project is being built on steel structures with increased spacing between wires and the highest standards for tree and vegetation clearances.

        Once the line is operational, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with local firefighting agencies will be in place to promote fire safety along the route and delineate how fires will be fought around the transmission line.  The MOU, which is expected to be complete this fall, will be similar to the MOU already in place for the Southwest Powerlink, SDG&E’s only other 500 kV transmission line.

        Construction on the Sunrise Powerlink is set to begin in fall 2010.  The project is expected to be in service in 2012.

        More information about the power line is available here:

        SDG&E is a regulated public utility that provides safe and reliable energy service to 3.4 million consumers through 1.4 million electric meters and more than 840,000 natural gas meters in San Diego and southern Orange counties.  The utility’s area spans 4,100 square miles.  SDG&E is committed to creating ways to help our customers save energy and money every day.  SDG&E is a subsidiary of Sempra Energy (NYSE: SRE), a Fortune 500 energy services holding company based in San Diego.