MALIBU, Calif. — Sprinkles of color are some of the signs of life finally re-emerging on Shari Latta’s burned property.
After spending over 40 years living in the canyons of Malibu, she’s no stranger to wildfires. Latta and her family have survived three or four fires that have whipped through the area.
“My house has never burned,” she said.
Then, on November 11, 2018, Latta watched as the flames from the fast-moving Woolsey Fire inched closer to her home.
She remembered, “[Within] 10 minutes the fire got here. We had 10 minutes to leave.”
The Woolsey Fire was so massive and dangerous, even ground firefighters couldn’t make it up the canyon from Pacific Coast Highway.
It took helicopter water drops to help douse some of the flames near Latta's home.
On one of those helicopters was Los Angeles County firefighter-paramedic Johnny Gray III.
In his 10 years with the LA County Fire Department, he says the Woolsey Fire was one of his toughest missions.
“We are on the coast at about 10 a.m. and it looks like it’s nighttime, it was fire overtaking everything,” Gray said.
This year’s wildfire season is expected to be worse. Additional helicopter pilots from across the country have been contracted to partner with firefighters throughout LA, Ventura and Orange counties.
The Quick Response Force contracts exclusively for up to 180 days with Coulson Aviation to combine aerial firefighting resources with a mobile retardant base and hover-filling tanks. This includes two Boeing Chinook CH-47 helitankers, one based at Van Nuys Air Tanker Base and the other at the Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos and a Sikorsky S-61 helitanker, based in Ventura County.
The CH-47s are considered the world's largest fire suppression, retardant-dropping helicopters with the capacity to carry 3,000 gallons.
The program is being financed with nearly $18 million from Southern California Edison.
Colin Morgan is a pilot contracted from Montana.
He says ground engines can get to fires faster but in cases where roadways are blocked, especially in the canyons, these helitankers provide a significant amount of firefighting power.
“It can make a big difference, you can drop water on a fire and you can tell it’s having an immediate effect,” Morgan said.
Unlike other firefighting helicopters used locally, these have the ability to fly at night.
If they'd had access to this chopper during the Woolsey Fire, maybe it could’ve stopped the late-night embers from setting Latta's 56,000 square foot ranch ablaze.
“It was heartbreaking," she said. "Every single thing was burned to a crisp.”
As she plans to rebuild, threats of wildfires continue to grow.
But for this nature-loving, Malibu rancher, it’s worth the risk because she says she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.