A Black Hawk helicopter modified to haul 900 gallons of water will be boosting the Marin County Fire Department’s aerial resources this fire season in a pilot program with PG&E.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors at its June 20 regular meeting authorized the fire department’s chief to enter into an agreement with PG&E for the trial program.

PG&E owns the helicopter, which is a Sikorsky UH-60A model. PG&E will pay for the cost of operating the helicopter in county areas for the first two hours of flight time per mission, up to a total of 40 hours of flight time during fire season. It will also cover the cost of staging the helicopter and having pilots on standby. Operators will be from Red Bluff-based PJ Helicopters.

Fires that are burning in state or federal land can be fully reimbursed by relevant partner agencies, according to Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber, who made the request to the board.

A closeup of PG&E’s modified Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter reveals the large tank used to store water for fighting wildfires. The chopper will be stationed in the North Bay this wildfire season as part of a trial partnership with the Marin County Fire Department. PG&E will pay for the first two hours of flight time for as many as 40 missions during the partnership. (PG&E via Bay City News)

The Black Hawk will be exclusively available to the Marin County Fire Department and partner agencies, which will have the ability to utilize the helicopter in other North Bay Area counties as needed.

Weber said the partnership will provide a resource that the fire department otherwise could not afford.

“The cost of aircraft is prohibitively expensive, I would say, for small organizations like us or even our local government partners, cities, towns that are out there,” Weber said during his presentation.

The addition of the dedicated helicopter is meant to provide additional capacity when other air resources provided by Cal Fire are tied up elsewhere.

“This gives us a resource that’s a little bit closer, with the goal that we’re keeping small fires small.”

Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber

A PG&E spokesman who spoke at the board meeting said it was the first such pilot program the utility had undertaken.

“This partnership represents a pivotal moment in our collective efforts to address the wildfire risk that threatens our communities,” said Mark Quinlan, senior vice president of wildfire and emergency operations at PG&E.

Operational command during fires will go through the fire department’s command center. Requests by partner agencies to use the helicopter will also go through the fire department.

The program will run from July through October.

The location where the helicopter will be staged is still undetermined, but it will be somewhere in the North Bay, according to Weber.

Cal Fire has two aircraft designated to cover Marin County. One is staged at Moffett Federal Airfield in Santa Clara County and the other is stationed at the Boggs Mountain Helitack Base in Lake County.

“This gives us a resource that’s a little bit closer, with the goal that we’re keeping small fires small,” Weber said.