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California Catholic college installs helipad to help fight wildfires

J-P Mauro - published on 12/10/21

St. Thomas Aquinas College had its own run-in with a wildfire, in 2017, that leveled 300,000 acres of forests and homes in Ventura County.

A Catholic college in Southern California has installed a new helipad on campus to aid in quenching wildfires. The convenient location will allow helicopters to refill with water faster, which could help stop wildfires before they go out of control. 

According to Catholic News Agency, St. Thomas Aquinas College, near Santa Paula, had its own encounter with a wildfire four years ago. The 2017 “Thomas Fire,” so named for the school, began less than a mile from the college and spread at a rate of an acre per second. After watching 300,000 acres of surrounding landscape go up in smoke, the Catholic college decided it needed to help prevent further loss. 

Vice President of St. Thomas Aquinas College, Mark Kretschmer, explained in a statement: 

“We have been honored to work with [the Ventura County Fire Department] ever since the college first came to Santa Paula in 1978, and we remember well the department’s heroic efforts during the Thomas Fire.” He added, “We are delighted that, after assisting with Ventura County’s search-and-rescue operations for all these years, we can now contribute to its firefighting efforts as well.”

St. Thomas Aquinas College reports that they have installed a water line at the helipad that is connected to a storage tank of 60,000 gallons. It will be an easy spot for Ventura County Firehawks (military grade Blackhawk helicopters repurposed for firefighting) to refill with water.

The county has two Firehawks, each equipped with a 1,000-gallon tank. The new helipad could allow the vehicles to refill 30 times before they will be forced to fly to the town of Fillmore, about 20 miles away. The distance is not far for a helicopter, but in the face of a quickly spreading wildfire every moment counts, Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen explained: 

“The new helispot at Thomas Aquinas College – less than a mile from where the 2017 Thomas Fire started — greatly aids our firefighting abilities in the Santa Paula area. We no longer need to fly our helicopters to Fillmore to fill water tanks. That means we can put more water on a fire while it’s small, giving it less time to spread.”

The report also notes that the situation of the helipad will also facilitate ambulances, without disturbing the college. The helipad connects to the nearby service road to highway 150, which will allow faster transportation from the helipad to the local hospital. 

Read more at the website of St. Thomas Aquinas College. 

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