Air Assets Valuable Tools for Battling Wildland Fires

Alan M. Petrillo

The threat of wildland fires continues to loom not only in the western and southwestern states but also in other parts of the country. And in many wildland fire situations in those areas, firefighters need the help of air assets to get a handle on the conflagration. The types of aircraft and helicopters used by fire bosses to control wildfires from the air vary with the area, the terrain, and the air assets available to be deployed.

According to United States Forest Service (USFS) data, there are one billion burnable acres in the United States, with approximately 100 million of those acres classified as “highly flammable.” A quarter of a million communities and 80 million people are under threat from wildland fires, the USFS data shows.

Tom Harbour, USFS director of fire and aviation management, says that in 2012, the USFS deployed 20,000 firefighters and 2,000 engines to fight wildfires around the country, along with flying 300 helicopters and 25 air tankers.

Air Tankers

Harbour notes that the USFS’s aviation assets include large Type I and Type II air tankers; smaller Type III and Type IV air tankers, helicopters, and scooper aircraft that are also used for aerial supervision; smoke jumping platforms such as the DC-3, C-23A, Twin Otter, Easa, and Dornier aircraft; Cessna Citation and King Air fixed-wing aircraft used for infrared mapping; aviation units from local and state jurisdictions; and contract fleet air tankers and helicopters.

Fixed-wing aircraft used in recent years by the USFS to fight wildfires include very large air tankers (VLATs) like the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 that can carry 12,000 gallons of water or retardant and the Boeing 747 with a tank capacity of 24,000 gallons, Harbour points out.

Type I air tankers include the Martin Mars (7,200-gallon tank), the Lockheed P-3 Orion (3,000-gallon tank), the Lockheed P-2 Neptune (2,700-gallon tank), the Douglas DC-6 (2,800-gallon tank), and the Douglas DC-7 (3,000-gallon tank).

The CL-215/Bombardier 415 Superscooper is a Type II air tanker that can carry 1,600 gallons of water, while the Type III Grumman S-2T carries 1,200 gallons and the Fire Boss 800 gallons.

The Fire Boss has an 800-gallon tank and can scoop up nearly a tankful of water without landing in a 15-second pass over a body of water
(1) The Fire Boss has an 800-gallon tank and can scoop up nearly a
tankful of water without landing in a 15-second pass over a body of
water. (Photo courtesy of Fire Boss.)

Scoop and Drop

Jamie Sargent, a technical consultant with Wipaire Inc., which owns Fire Boss LLC, says there currently are 51 Fire Boss aircraft operating around the world, with 42 units in Europe, 13 in Canada, four in the United States, two in Australia, and one in Argentina. “The challenge in the U.S. market is that it has been geared toward ex-military aircraft converted for firefighting,” Sargent says. “But, agencies are now moving toward next generation platforms and focusing on land-based aircraft that can haul retardant and water.”

Sargent notes the Fire Boss serves as an initial attack resource for wildland fire managers, and because it is a turbine powered aircraft, there is no engine warmup time required, meaning the aircraft can be on its way to fight a fire very quickly.

“The Fire Boss has an 800-gallon tank onboard and can scoop between 600 and 650 gallons at a time, which takes about 15 seconds,” Sargent says, “because you never can scoop a full tank capacity. With between an hour and a half and two and a half hours of fuel on board, the aircraft can stay much longer at a fire.”

Sargent says that having a pair of Fire Boss aircraft doing scoop and drop circuits allows each aircraft to deliver 15,000 gallons of water per hour, given the right environment. “If the fire is near a water source, the aircraft can stay in the fire environment for a three-hour period,” he adds.

Helicopter Usage

Using helicopters for wildland fires in the United States goes back to 1947 when they were first used to rapidly transport personnel and cargo to a fire, especially in remote locations. The USFS considers helicopters to be versatile fire management tools, says Harbour, since they can be fitted with tanks or buckets to deliver water and fire retardant to a fire line.

Large, heavy-lift helicopters can fill their water tanks with a snorkel that siphons water from lakes, rivers, or other sources. Examples of this type of helicopter include the Type I Sikorsky S-61 with a 1,000-gallon water tank, the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane Type I Heavy Lift Helicopter with a 2,600-gallon water tank, and the Sikorsky S-70 Firehawk Type I with a 1,000-gallon water tank.

Other heavy-lift Type I helicopters in use on wildland fires are the Eurocopter AS332L Super Puma with a 2,000-gallon water tank, the Boeing-Vertol 107 Type I that carries a 1,100-gallon water tank or a bucket, and the Boeing 234 Chinook Type I with a 3,000-gallon water carrying capacity or a bucket.

Smaller helicopters carry either water tanks or water in buckets that hold between 100 and 400 gallons of water. Each bucket has a release valve on the bottom controlled by the helicopter crew, and when the helicopter is in position the crew releases the water to extinguish hot spots.

Model Aviation Program

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has an air program that’s been called the world’s premier firefighting aviation program. CAL FIRE’s fleet of more than 50 fixed-wing and rotary wing aircraft makes it the largest department-owned fleet of aerial firefighting equipment in the world. It has 13 airbases and nine helicopter bases located throughout the state.

Besides using many of the Type I and II heavy- and medium-lift helicopters flown by the USFS, CAL FIRE also has flown the Kaman K-Max Type I with a 700-gallon water tank and the Type II Bell 212, UH-1H Super Huey, Bell 205A++, and Bell 412, each carrying a 360-gallon water tank or a bucket.

Type III helicopters include the Bell 206B JetRanger, DOGL-III LongRanger, and MD 500D, each with a 120-gallon water tank capacity; and the Eurocopter AS250 AStar, Aerospatiale SA 315B Lama, and Alouette 316B, each with a 180-gallon water tank.

Asset Variety for 2013

Harbour predicts that 2013 wildland firefighting aviation assets may include a Type I fixed-wing aircraft capable of carrying up to 5,000 gallons of water or retardant, a wider use of scooper aircraft such as the Fire Boss, an increased number of large Type I fire support helicopters, and a greater number of initial attack helicopters.

Other aircraft and systems that could be pressed into service in the future, Harbour says, include orbiting satellites to provide imagery of a wildland fire and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that can carry an array of sensors and stay on station a long time, as well as a larger number of VLAT aircraft such as the DC-10, two of which the USFS had flying during 2012. “It’s a matter of putting the right asset in the right place for the right duration,” he says, “accomplishing the right objective for the right reason.”

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

No posts to display