USA — The sixth edition of the international Aerial Firefighting (AFF) conference focused on the critical issues facing the U.S. aerial firefighting effort and where its future lies.
On May 25 and 26, nearly 100 delegates from six countries attended a “Future of U.S. Aerial Firefighting” conference in Washington, D.C., coordinated by the United-Kingdom-based event company Tangent Link. The D.C. event was the sixth international AFF conference Tangent Link had presented in the past three years. The first was in Athens, Greece, in 2008 (see p.13, Vertical 911, Heli-Expo 2009) and the first U.S. edition was in Anaheim, Calif., in 2009 (see p.6, Vertical 911, Spring 2009).
As the event’s speakers made clear, the United States is currently facing critical issues related to aerial firefighting equipment and strategies. These issues include questions about replacing the existing fleet of fixed-wing heavy air tankers, the use of military assets to battle wildfires, and firefighting at night using night vision goggles all of which were topics addressed at the May conference in D.C.
Bob Cavage, president of the Los Angeles, Calif., based Wildfire Research Network, called attention to the increasing prevalence of catastrophic wildfires or “mega fires.” Cavage argued for aggressive suppression in high-risk areas. Under his proposal, the detection of an ignition in a “red flag” area would trigger the dispatch, automatically and immediately, of all ground and air assets capable of responding within an hour. Pre-assigned radio frequencies would allow first-in elements to communicate with the first incident commander to arrive on scene. “We must find a way to get more suppressant on the heads of wind-driven fires that become ‘mega’ fires,” emphasized Cavage.
Cavage also talked about the importance of heavy air tankers in fire suppression, claiming that the handful of these aircraft including the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, Boeing 747 and Martin Mars that have been offered to firefighting agencies by private operators are the “best hope” for an aggressive response strategy. Unfortunately, the nation’s current fleet of large air tankers (LATs) is at a critical point. In 2002, there were 44 LATs in the U.S. Forest Service’s contract fleet; now there are only 17.
Thankfully, the U.S. military has supplemented this to some degree through the MAFFS program. The modular airborne firefighting system, or MAFFS, is a pressurized 3,000 US gallon tank that is installed on a Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules. It can dispense a load of water or retardant covering an area a quarter-mile long and 60-feet wide in under five seconds.
Lt.-Col. Bryan Allen, MAFFS program manager for the 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard, presented a comprehensive overview of MAFFS and noted that C-130Js equipped with this system are currently flying an average of 265 hours on wildfires each year, delivering around 700,000 US gallons of retardant. These MAFFS aircraft provide a surge capacity when the commercial tanker fleet is fully tasked or not available on a national scale. However, Allen cautioned that the military, given its current operational tempo, would not support an increase in the use of its warfighting assets to combat wildland fires.
Some in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service would like Congress to fund the acquisition of 20 to 30 new C-130Js equipped with MAFFS II units. Yet, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, as Frank Gladics, Republican professional staff member with the U.S. Senate energy and natural resources committee, explained in a frank presentation on the budgetary and political realities of replacing the existing LAT fleet.
Gladics noted that there is no funding for new, dedicated C-130Js, which have an estimated cost of $75-million to $80-million US an aircraft, plus $5 million for each MAFFS II unit. He also said any approach that emphasizes a single aircraft type brings up cause for concern because it would make the entire fleet vulnerable to grounding: “We need a more diverse fleet. . . . Go back and look at alternate aircraft, including water-scooping aircraft.” Gladics then sounded a warning to delegates: “Our forests, the resources and communities can’t wait another 10 years while you wait for the existing fleet to become inoperable in hopes Congress will be forced to buy you that Ferrari you want.”
Said Keith Argow, president of the National Woodland Owners Association, and a presenter at the conference, “Gladics delivered an uncommonly frank and honest assessment of the political path that must be negotiated.”
Gladics also presented data showing the role of helicopters in wildland firefighting, which is especially important now given the restrictions on heavy air tankers. The data showed that for much of the past 10 years the use of helicopters to fight wildfires has been far greater than the use of LATs.
However, Cavage said that even the helicopter fleet is potentially underutilized, because, with a few exceptions, aerial assets in the U.S. don’t fight wildfires at night. While some operators have expressed concern about the safety of nighttime aerial firefighting operations, from a suppression standpoint the practice does offer several advantages, particularly as many fires are more manageable at night due to lower temperatures and wind speeds, and increased humidity (see p.44, Vertical 911, Heli-Expo 2011).
Also speaking on the topic of firefighting at night was Dennis Hulbert, a retired regional aviation officer for the USFS (California). Hulbert has been researching and implementing innovative aerial attack programs and told conference delegates that, “Recent fire events have caused management, as well as the public, to question the fire suppression tactics used by firefighting agencies, and the ability to fight fire at night.” He noted that, for some years now, both the military and emergency services have been making considerable technological improvements in night vision hardware and systems, better enabling night operations to be conducted effectively and safely.
As with the last time the conference was in the U.S., delegate response was positive, and ably summed up by Erickson Air-Crane’s aerial firefighting manager, Mike Rotonda, who told Vertical that it was “an excellent opportunity for all facets of aerial firefighting to share experiences and learn from each other. Government, military and industry leaders discussed the future of aerial firefighting in the U.S. While there were differences in opinion, all benefited from the event.” The seventh AFF conference, focusing on best practices, will be held in Melbourne, Australia, Aug. 25, 2011.