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How excessive heat threatens the safety of helicopters and emergency missions

STANFORD, Calif. — The call came at 2 p.m. Sunday: A driver had suffered a brain injury in a traffic accident and needed to be airlifted to another hospital as quickly as possible.

The helicopter’s lead pilot, Douglas Evans, noted that the temperature was 118 degrees Fahrenheit (46.5 degrees Celsius) in Redding, California, where he would be scheduled to land. The runway was likely even hotter. In 27 years of operating medical helicopters in California, Evans had never had to cancel a flight due to excessive heat — until now.

Evans and other emergency response pilots They are used to factoring California Wind, fog and smoke from the wildfires are influencing their flight decisions. But extreme heat, like the intense heatwave sweeping the West right now, is affecting how rescue helicopters can carry out their missions.

High temperatures, which are increasing due to man-made climate change, are disrupting operations across wide swaths of the state. REACH Air Medical Services, which operates 30 helicopter bases across California, turned away at least two rescue calls over the weekend because of excessive heat, said Vicky Spediacci, the company’s chief operating officer. “This is pretty rare. There can be hot spots, but this was more widespread,” she said.

The company sometimes changes routes in warm weather to land at an airport, where there are fewer obstacles, rather than at the crash site. Landing in a tight area can require more engine power, which is more difficult in hot temperatures, said Spediacci, who was a pilot for 40 years.

The heat is hampering efforts to transport patients and conduct rescues in the region’s national parks, places that can rely on helicopters amid the vast wilderness. When hikers get lost or stranded on remote trails, helicopters are sometimes sent in to locate and rescue them.

National parks such as Joshua Tree and Death Valley warn visitors that because of the heat, helicopters cannot reach the most ambitious hikers, according to rangers. When temperatures exceed 122 degrees — which has already happened this year in parts of California, including Death Valley — medical helicopters often cannot fly.

A helicopter was unable to fly to conduct a rescue in Death Valley this weekend because of the heat, officials said. Six motorcyclists were riding together in the park. One person died from heat exposure, another was “treated for severe heat illness” and taken to a hospital, and four were treated at the scene and released, officials said.

“Due to the high temperatures, emergency medical flight helicopters were unable to respond as they typically cannot safely fly in temperatures above 120 degrees,” a news release said, noting that it was 128 degrees that day.

Death Valley Park Ranger Nichole Andler said in an interview Tuesday that the person who died was pronounced dead at the scene. Rangers called for a helicopter to take the critically injured person, but it refused to come because it was too hot, she said. The injured person was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Pahrump, Nev., and later to Las Vegas, she said. His condition is unknown.

Andler told The Washington Post earlier this month that the park receives one to three requests per month for air ambulances during the summer to fly people to receive medical care. Sometimes, patients are flown by ambulance to higher, cooler altitudes, where a helicopter can take off and land more safely.

“As temperatures rise more frequently, it becomes more difficult to help,” Andler said.

At Joshua Tree, the Southern California national park known for its spectacular desert landscapes, helicopter rescues can happen three to five times a year, said Anna Marini, a park ranger. The park recorded high temperatures of more than 110 degrees throughout the weekend.

A few weeks ago, Marini said the park requested a helicopter to rescue a hiker who suffered heat stroke off the trail in the mid-afternoon. The terrain was neither flat nor easily accessible by vehicle, and it was cold enough for the person to be rescued by helicopter. But when it gets warmer, those rescues might not be possible, he said.

“Intense heat puts a lot more stress on helicopters,” Marini said. “That could affect our operations.”

When it’s hot, the air is thinner, which means helicopter blades have less air to grab onto. That affects their ability to take off and navigate. Onboard systems can overheat and stop working. Pilots have to make adjustments to weight, equipment and route planning, or they may have to refuse to fly.

When Evans, who works for Stanford Life Flight, Stanford University Hospital’s medical helicopter response program, checked conditions Sunday, he knew the helicopter’s engine, radio and computers were at risk of malfunctioning.

“It’s something we’re going to have to be more vigilant about now,” Evans said. “I see things heating up and I expect it will only get worse,” he said.

Around 5:30 p.m., a crew in Redding that had also initially rejected the call because of the heat deemed it was cold enough to transport the patient, said Michael Baulch, the Stanford Life Flight program manager. They arrived at Stanford at about 8 p.m., but had lost critical hours waiting for cooler weather, he said.

On Tuesday, Baulch said, the patient was in stable condition.

The Airbus EC-145 that Stanford flies is prepared for many missions. It can transport newborn babies from one facility to another; it can fly patients to more advanced operating rooms across the state while their chests are open in the middle of heart surgery; it can quickly navigate rush-hour traffic and arrive at the scene of a traffic accident long before an ambulance.

“When it’s that hot, we can’t lift as much weight,” Baulch said. “We have to leave people or equipment behind.”

The 40-year-old unit, which operates as far south as Santa Barbara and as far east as Reno, Nevada, makes about 480 medical transports a year. About 30 percent of them are responses to 911 emergency calls.

Deep in the basement of Stanford Hospital, a control room with about six employees and at least 20 screens is constantly in motion, fielding calls and requests for medical air support. When a call comes in, control radios the pilot and asks if the weather is good for flying.

“We will not tell the pilot the details of the case to avoid any bias,” Baulch said.

If the flight is approved, the nurses and the pilot on duty put on their thick fireproof suits and board the helicopter.

During a flight over the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Stanford team felt the heat. The temperature was around 90 degrees, but the helicopter had been in the sun while the crew trained local firefighters and forest rangers on how to assist the crew in a rescue.

The engine was as hot as it could safely get, said Evans, the pilot.

Brown, breathable suits covered the crew’s legs and arms. The sun shone through the cockpit window on a cloudless Saturday, while air conditioning vents blew out weak streams of air.

The flight lasted just five minutes, but upon landing, the crew stripped off layers of clothing and grabbed bottles of cold water and frozen treats from the base. Trips for them can last up to two hours.

“You basically sit there and roast,” said Kent Cramer, one of the flight nurses, as he sucked on a lime-green ice cream.

Kevin So, another nurse, pulled out a bulky turquoise-colored contraption that the crew affectionately calls “the snorkel.” Attached to the box is a hose that pumps cool air into the cabin while on the tarmac.

Evans sometimes flies to higher altitudes to cool the helicopter, but going higher often means less oxygen for a patient already in distress.

Even below the 122-degree limit, high temperatures affect crew operations. “Above 104, we can only operate on the ground for 15 minutes,” Evans said.

Evans knew from a young age that he wanted to be a pilot. He started out flying small planes, but says he realized that it was more fun to be able to move sideways and backwards, hover and fly through the trees. The fact that he is flying to save lives makes the job all the more rewarding.

His favorite missions are the ones that involve obstacles: landing on bridges or beaches, navigating the helicopter in the middle of a city.

But the heat was an obstacle he did not see coming and he anticipates it will make his job more difficult if he has to turn down more flights.

“The hardest part of the job is saying no,” he said.

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