Russia / USA — A company with access to three Russian-made amphibious air tankers has responded to a call put out by cities in Los Angeles County concerned about inadequate air support for fighting frequent wildfires.
Santa Maria-based International Emergency Services has sent a proposal to a local city council member offering to lease a twin-engine turbo-jet plane that holds nearly twice as much water as the Canadian-made Super Scooper, the CL-415.
The Russian BE-200 similarly scoops water out of a reservoir or the ocean without landing but can release water all at once or in four to eight bursts. In particular, it works in tandem with other water- and retardant-dropping aircraft and therefore increases drop volumes, company officials said.
This is the future of fire fighting, said Adrian Butash, marketing director for IES, which holds the exclusive rights to import the BE-200. The plane was made by Beriev Aircraft Co., a manufacturer based in Taganrog, a city located on the Black Sea about 600 kilometers from Sochi, the host of the recent 2014 Winter Olympics.
The plane, originally built for the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, was flight-tested by Russian President Vladimir Putin during a recent demonstration in Russia. The water-scooping planes were used to battle forest fires in Russia, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Indonesia and Israel but not yet in the United States.
The company is in the process of getting clearance to fly the planes in the United States from the Federal Aviation Administration, company officials said. One official said it may be only a few weeks away from getting FAA clearance.
IES officials have contacted Azusa City Councilman Angel Carrillo, who is leading the effort along with the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments and Los Angeles County Fire Department to supplement the air attack used to fight wildfires.
Carrillo has said the Super Scoopers performance in the Colby Fire, which blackened nearly 2,000 acres and destroyed five homes in Glendora in January, was instrumental in containing the damage. But he said they are only leased from September through November and were here on a fluke.
We can provide our aircraft to an entity like the San Gabriel Valley COG or Los Angeles County at a very affordable price, said James Bagnard, IES program manager.
The cost of leasing one plane for a year would be about $16 million, he said. Leasing it for a 180-day fire season would be $8 million. Exact figures were not included in the proposal IES sent Carrillo. Bagnard had not heard back from the Azusa councilman.
However, at the San Gabriel Valley COG meeting Thursday, Carrillo said the cost of saving lives and preventing millions of dollars in property loss would be worth it. If we can have an additional tool, why wouldnt we want to have it? he said.
Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp told the COG members the fire department can extend the lease of the Super Scoopers when red flag conditions persist. In fact, the Super Scooper lease had already been extended through the end of February.
On Tuesday, county Supervisor Mike Antonovich announced the lease will be extended until March 15.
Although Los Angeles County is expected to receive some significant rainfall later this week, our region is still in a drought and fire danger remains high, Antonovich said in a prepared statement.
Carrillo had asked the county to look into keeping a Super Scooper-type plane in Southern California 12 months a year. He said the state, the federal government and other Southern California counties could share the cost.
Bagnard, who grew up in Pasadena, said he has seen the San Gabriel Mountains on fire and believes his companys plane can save lives and property. He said his company has many options to house the plane because the region has many airports.
Its perfect for California since it can scoop 3,167 gallons of water in 18 seconds without landing, putting more water on a fire per hour, he said.
IES is talking with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire, and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the counties of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara about leasing a BE-200.
The BE-200 has worked well with the CL-415s in Greece. They make a good team, Bagnard said.
Using water-dropping aircraft in combination especially at the beginning of the fire could make a huge difference, according to the Wildfire Research Network in Tujunga.
The county used two Canadian 415 Super Scoopers on the Colby Fire, each dropping 1,600 gallons. In recent wildfires in Europe, planes are used in greater numbers at once. For example, Italy teamed up four in tandem to get a 6,400-gallon drop, according to the groups 2011 report delivered to a conference in Washington, D.C.
Multiple aircraft tactics is just one of the improvements suggested by the group. The group also suggested pre-designating an incident commander for each geographic area before a fire breaks out. Another idea night-flying helicopters was added to the Forest Service fleet for the first time this year after a bill by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, required the extra service. Los Angeles County Fire and L.A. City Fire have flown helicopters at night for many years.
Large, fixed-wing aircraft, such as the 415s, BE-200 or the C-130s, a military plane, cant fly after what firefighters call pumpkin time, when the sun begins to set and turn orange, fire officials said.
Tripp told the COG the Super Scooper planes were not the key to containing the Colby Fire, but rather, it was a combination of air attacks and firefighters on the ground, plus good preparation from hillside homeowners who cleared brush and removed leaves from their roofs and gutters ahead of time.