Firefighting Frontlines

Firefighting Frontlines

01 August 2014

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USA — They come in many shapes and various sizes. They fly to places with odd names, like Soldotna, Coconino and Funny River. Then they linger amid flames and smoke that darken the skies, and drive families out of their homes. They are helicopters hired by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to support those who battle wildland fires.

Using the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) as the seat of its overall command authority, USFS can mobilize an armada of helicopters and crews to help personnel on the ground prosecute wildland fires – those blazes that occur in predominantly undeveloped areas – that ravage millions of acres in the U.S. every year. The causes of these fires vary widely, and can include lightning strikes, improperly managed campfires, and carelessly tossed cigarettes. But any of them can go from being minor to fatal in just a couple of hours if not attacked quickly, properly, and sometimes from the sky. Although people tend to think of wildland fires as situations that only occur in places like Arizona, California and Oregon, there are enough undeveloped woodlands in all 50 states to make the possibility of a large fire anywhere very real. Even so, ground personnel are often capable of extinguishing the fire by themselves, provided they can get to it. But that requires roads that can handle their heavy vehicles. Wildland fires are often found deep in the wilderness where roads do not exist, or are embedded in steep hillsides inaccessible to firefighters and the amounts of water, retardant, and gear they need.

Enter the helicopter. The USFS employs helicopters to transport personnel, move firefighters, haul cargo internally or externally, drop water, and apply retardants in areas that are either difficult to get to, or completely inaccessible by any other means. Getting them there quickly when there are so many areas that could ignite is the responsibility of Vince Welbaum, the national helicopter operations specialist for USFS. With 35 years of firefighting experience – 33 years of which were spent on the aviation side of the operation – there is little that he hasn’t seen or done.

“We really don’t have a downtime,” said Welbaum, who went on to explain that when the fire season is slowing down in one part of the country, it can be lighting off in another. “There’s always something burning.”

USFS, which comes under the Department of Agriculture, does not own a fleet of firefighting aircraft. Instead, it uses two contract methods – Exclusive Use (EU) and Call-When-Needed (CWN) – to retain the services of helicopters, airplanes and their support from personnel from commercial operators, whom they refer to as “vendors.”

EU contracts require helicopters to be available for wildfire suppression for a specified period of time called a “mandatory availability period.” During that time, the company must provide the type and number of mission-ready aircraft specified by USFS, a crew that is properly licensed and trained to fly firefighting missions, and all of the support services needed to maintain readiness. They must also provide fuel for their aircraft, unless it will be deployed to Alaska. (Because of its remoteness, the government furnishes aviation fuel for aircraft contracted to fly there.)

CWN contracts enable USFS to mobilize additional aircraft when needed to supplement the EU contract fleet. Companies with CWN contracts must be able to provide personnel and aircraft that meet the same levels of preparedness as the EU vendors, but there is no obligation to respond to a fire when called. They can pass if they have other obligations or problems, but as with any other paying customer, refusing the mission means refusing the fee that the customer (i.e., the government) would have paid.

All companies must meet stringent performance and safety standards before applying to bid on an USFS contract. Once hired, the contract’s language requires the vendors to adhere to stringent performance and safety standards over the life of the agreement, which includes work hours.

“We have in the contract that [flight crews] are required to have 10 hours of uninterrupted rest,” explained Welbaum. “So, they can work a 14-hour day, but they’re limited to eight hours of flight time per day.”

USFS pays a daily availability rate and an hourly flight rate for helicopters with each type of contract. The rates differ, however, for different types of helicopters.

A Type-I (heavy) helicopter can carry a payload of 5,000 lbs or more, and 700-2,500 gallons of water or retardant. Two examples would be the Kaman K-Max and the Erickson Air-Crane. A Type-II (medium) helicopter can carry 9-14 passengers, with a payload of 2,500-4,999 lbs and 300-699 gallons of water or retardant. The Bell 212 is a Type-II craft. And a Type III (light) helicopter can move 4-8 passengers, lift a payload of 1,200-2,499 lbs and deliver 100-299 gallons of water or retardant. Examples of a Type-III aircraft would be the Bell 407 and the MD Helicopters MD500.

“The helicopters have their own management,” said Welbaum, who explained that the vendors provide their own maintenance personnel, spare parts and supplies.

The numbers associated with the type-system simplifies identifying which aircraft will be the most effective for any given mission, without assigning more helicopters than needed. At the time of this writing, the USFS had 34 Type-I, 33 Type-II, and 60 Type-III helicopters stationed throughout the country. Those operating under EU contracts might be instructed to remain at their normal company-owned base until called, while others might be positioned to support a current firefighting operation. Some aircraft may even be pre-positioned near an area with a high probability of catching fire, based upon weather conditions, human interference, or some other factor. Once a fire incident has been identified, local and area personnel will try to deal with it themselves. But if it rages beyond the capabilities of their resources, they will make a call to the National Interagency Command Center (NICC) in Boise, Idaho, for help. Personnel staffing the NICC will then locate the most appropriate asset, and dispatch it.

The incident commander, who is the highest firefighting authority on the fire scene, will set up a forward base as close to the incident command area as possible, but not before taking into consideration the size and purpose of the aircraft that will be supporting the operation, and any hazards that might encroach upon the base. Such hazards can be blowing smoke and debris, the projected path of the blaze, or its proximity to wires.

“[A forward base] can be anywhere, from a farmer’s field to an airport that’s nearby,” said Welbaum. “We’ve even set up at school facilities after schools have been let out for the summer.” The most visible missions flown by contract helicopters are water drops, which are typically done directly on burning grass, brush, and trees to extinguish the flames, or cool areas that might ignite. The two primary helicopter systems used for delivering water are the water tank and the water bucket. Water tanks are vessels that are attached to the helicopter, and can hold several hundreds or thousands of gallons. Filling the tank can be done by lowering a snorkel into a body of water and drawing some aboard. It can also be filled by landing, so that a water truck can replenish it with a hose. Once filled, the aircraft will fly to the designated site where the crew can release its content a little at a time to cover a large span, or all at once to create a deluge of water in one spot, depending on what the incident commander wants.

Water can also be delivered by “Bambi Buckets,” a specific system that became so popular over the years, its brand name became the generic term used to describe any kind of cable-slung, firefighting water bucket. The bucket is suspended below the aircraft by a cargo hook and cable, and filled by dipping it into a body of water. Once above the drop site, the crew opens the valve that releases its content, which can be between 70 and 2,600 gallons of water, depending upon the model. Tank- and bucket-equipped helicopters can serve a second purpose. They can fill their vessels with flame retardant, which is typically dropped ahead of fires to reduce the flammability or ignition properties of any forest materials the flames might use for fuel.

One particular mission that is seldom seen by the general public involves an operation called, “heli-torching,” where the aircraft carries a 50-gallon drum of flammable gel on the end of a cable. The drum slowly releases its content, which is then ignited by a device called a “drip torch.” Those globs of burning gel set the terrain ablaze, resulting in a controlled burn-off of fuel before the wildfire arrives. Once this “firebreak,” as it is called, has been extinguished, the wildfire’s progress will be slowed down, if not halted.

Welbaum emphasized that as valuable as helicopters are to the mission, the key component to bringing a wildland fire under control is ground personnel. Rotorcraft are frequently used to ferry in firefighters, who will battle the blaze on the surface. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of dropping them at a forward base, while other times they must rappel into the forest using ropes rigged by the helicopter crew. Although Type-I helicopters will be the largest on a scene, personnel are normally flown aboard Type-II and Type-III aircraft, along with as much gear as possible.

All of the services contracted for by USFS come at a price. The costs for all helicopter operations for the years spanning 2010-2013 were approximately $149 million, $245 million, $272 million, and $250 million, respectively. According to NICC’s Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics Annual Report for 2013, a total of 1,008 helicopter requests were processed by the NICC. In that year, 619 requests were filled, and 111 were canceled. USFS was, however, unable to fill 278 of those requests for any number of reasons, ranging from not having an aircraft to send, to deciding that a different kind of aid would be more appropriate.

While firefighting is the primary mission of USFS’s contract aircraft, they stand ready to assist with anything deemed to be a national emergency. “If the president declared a national emergency – whether an earthquake, a flood, or one of the nasty hurricanes that we get – we could deploy these contracted aircraft to go support that response,” said Welbaum. And [aircraft and crews] have deployed to incidents, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.

“Our aircraft are a national asset,” said Welbaum.

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