Aviation-Related Wildland Firefighter Fatalities — United States, 2000–2013

Aviation Fatality Map wildland fireThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published the results of a study that collected information about aviation-related fatalities of wildland firefighters between 2000 and 2013. You can see the entire paper HERE (see page 793), but most of it is below.

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Aviation-Related Wildland Firefighter Fatalities — United States, 2000–2013
Weekly
July 31, 2015 / 64(29);793-796

Corey R. Butler, MS1, Mary B. O’Connor, MS2, Jennifer M. Lincoln, PhD2 (Author affiliations at end of text)

Airplanes and helicopters are integral to the management and suppression of wildfires, often operating in high-risk, low-altitude environments. To update data on aviation-related wildland firefighting fatalities, identify risk factors, and make recommendations for improved safety, CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) analyzed reports from multiple data sources for the period 2000–2013. Among 298 wildland firefighter fatalities identified during 2000–2013, 78 (26.2%) were aviation-related occupational fatalities that occurred during 41 separate events involving 42 aircraft. Aircraft crashes accounted for 38 events. Pilots, copilots, and flight engineers represented 53 (68%) of the aviation-related fatalities. The leading causes of fatal aircraft crashes were engine, structure, or component failure (24%); pilot loss of control (24%); failure to maintain clearance from terrain, water, or objects (20%); and hazardous weather (15%). To reduce fatalities from aviation-related wildland firefighting activities, stringent safety guidelines need to be followed during all phases of firefighting, including training exercises. Crew resource management techniques, which use all available resources, information, equipment, and personnel to achieve safe and efficient flight operations, can be applied to firefighting operations.

Airplanes and helicopters play a major role in the control of wildland (forest, brush, and grass) fires. These aircraft are used to deliver equipment and supplies, deploy and transport firefighters, conduct reconnaissance, scout and direct operations, and deliver fire retardant or water. During the past decade, the United States has experienced an increase in the size, frequency, and severity of wildfires, likely attributable to buildup of flammable vegetation, decline in snowpack, and human development in the wildland urban interface (1,2). If these conditions continue, more fire response workers will be needed, and the demand on aviation to support these efforts will increase.

To identify risk factors for aviation-related wildland firefighter activities, NIOSH reviewed and extracted case reports from the Fire Administration Firefighter Fatality surveillance system, the National Fire Protection Association Fire Incident Data Organization database, the National Wildland Coordinating Group’s Safety Gram, and the National Transportation Safety Board aviation database. A wildland firefighter fatality was defined as any death that occurred in a paid or unpaid wildland firefighter, contractor, aviation crew member or support staff, inmate, or member of the military while performing official wildland fire duties, including operations (fire or nonfire incident), responding to or returning from a wildland fire incident, or other officially assigned duties.* Other emergency response workers who were fatally injured at wildfires were excluded from this analysis. The number of flight hours for the U.S. Forest Service was used as a denominator to indicate the use of aviation resources because flight hours from other agencies or workforce numbers were not available.

During 2000–2013, a total of 298 wildland firefighter fatalities were identified, averaging 21 fatalities per year. Among these, 78 (26.2%) were caused by activities associated with aviation. The number of aviation- related fatalities decreased during 2007–2013, compared with 2000–2006 (Table 1). Of the persons who died in aviation-related activities, 76 (97%) were male, and 53 (68%) were flight crew members (e.g., pilots, copilots, and flight engineers). The average age of flight crew victims was 49 years (range = 20–66 years) and of nonflight crew victims was 33 years (range = 19–54 years). The most common occupation of nonflight crew members was firefighter. Most victims were employed by aerial contractors (42), followed by the federal government (15), state government agencies (10), ground contractors (seven), and the military (four). Twenty-five (32%) of the aviation-related fatalities occurred in California, eight occurred in Nevada, and seven in Idaho (Figure).

Aviation Fatalities wildland fire

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An introduction to the Columbia Air Attack Base

OV-10

CAL FIRE OV-10s at McClellan AFB March 17, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Motherlode website has an article about the CAL FIRE Air Attack Base at Columbia, California that is full of facts and statistics. The airport is east of San Francisco, about 40 miles northeast of Modesto (map). Here is an excerpt:

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“Columbia, CA – The meters certainly run each time Columbia Air-Attack Base aircraft take to the skies, and this week units are in full response mode to an elevated drought-parched wildfire season, further intensified by triple-digit heat.

Ironically, just ahead of yesterday’s Big Creek Fire break out near Groveland, the Mother Lode’s first major wildfire this season, Clarke Broadcasting checked in with Columbia Air Attack Base Battalion Chief Frank Podesta about how the season is going so far. At the time, he indicated an air tanker was actively assisting the Willow Fire, southeast of Bass Lake, in Madera County, and personnel had earlier provided back up on the Lowell Fire, west of Alta, in Nevada and Placer counties.

“It’s a fire season that we had expected with the dryness and severity of the drought,” Chief Podesta remarks, a bit grimly. He adds, “Fortunately, we are getting on top of them as quickly as possible.”

Crunching Columbia Air-Attack Numbers

With so many of the base aircraft out and about, we asked how much it might cost to run those units. The chief was happy to provide some numbers to crunch. First of all, fire retardant, according to Podesta, runs $2.94/gallon for the first 100,000 gallons; $2.13 after that. As the base drops somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 gallons per year on average, the cost for that line item runs somewhere between $933,000 and $1.4 million. By the way, he estimates, as of yesterday, the unit is “real close” to hitting that 100,000-gallon benchmark.

Built into the hourly rate for each aircraft type are their related firefighting costs, Podesta explains. Each of the two tankers, 82 and 83, cost $2,649/hour to operate and spend 180 to 200 hours in service per year. Subsequently, the average cost to operate both normally runs between $953,640 and $1,165,560 per year. At $743/hour, the Air Attack control or “spotter” plane, in use 250 to 300 hours per year, costs between $185,750 and $222,900. The unit helicopter, at $1,582/hour, which chalks up between 150 to 200 service hours per year, totals between $237,300 and $316,400.

So, annual firefighting costs, considering the above operational aircraft and fire retardant numbers, roughly ranges between $2.3 and $3.1 million per year…”

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Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Troy.

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FAA: Wildfire and drones don’t mix

WASHINGTON – Responding to recent incidents in which unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also known as “drones,” interfered with manned aircraft involved in wildland firefighting operations, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is supporting the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service in their simple message to drone operators: If you fly; we can’t.

 “Flying a drone near aerial firefighting aircraft doesn’t just pose a hazard to the pilots,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “When aircraft are grounded because an unmanned aircraft is in the vicinity, lives are put at greater risk.” 

Often a temporary flight restriction (TFR) is put in place around wildfires to protect firefighting aircraft. No one other than the agencies involved in the firefighting effort can fly any manned or unmanned aircraft in such a TFR. Anyone who violates a TFR and endangers the safety of manned aircraft could be subject to civil and/or criminal penalties. Even if there is no TFR, operating a UAS could still pose a hazard to firefighting aircraft and would violate Federal Aviation Regulations.

“The FAA’s top priority is safety. If you endanger manned aircraft or people on the ground with an unmanned aircraft, you could be liable for a fine ranging from $1,000 to a maximum of $25,000,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “Know the rules before you fly. If you don’t, serious penalties could be coming your way for jeopardizing these important missions.”

Since so many people operate unmanned aircraft with little or no aviation experience, the FAA is promoting voluntary compliance and working to educate UAS operators about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws. The agency has partnered with industry and the modeling community in a public outreach campaign called “Know Before You Fly.” 

The campaign recently reminded UAS users to respect wildfire operations. The National Interagency Fire Center also posted a video warning for users to, “Be Smart. Be Safe. Stay Away.” 

Additionally, the FAA provided guidance to law enforcement agencies because they are often in the best position to deter, detect, immediately investigate, and, as appropriate, pursue enforcement actions to stop unauthorized or unsafe unmanned aircraft operations.

So remember this simple message around wildfires: If you fly, they can’t. Keep your drone on the ground and let firefighters and aircraft do their jobs. And, if you see someone flying a drone near a wildfire, report it immediately to local law enforcement and the nearest FAA Flight Standards District Office with as much information as possible. You can find the closest FAA office at: http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/field_offices/fsdo/.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Elizabeth.

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$25,000 rewards approved for turning in drone operators

When we learned that San Bernardino County was going to consider offering large rewards for turning in drone operators who interfere with aviation operations on wildfires, we were not certain that the $75,000 appropriation would pass. But damn, it did.

The Board of Supervisors for the southern California county unanimously agreed on Tuesday, July 28, to allocate $25,000 rewards for information that could lead to the arrest and conviction of operators of the drones that caused temporary halts to aircraft operations on three recent fires — the Lake fire near Barton Flats on June 24, the Mill 2 fire near Yucaipa on July 12, and the North fire near Cajon Pass on July 17.

This just might be effective. It is even possible that an unintended consequence of this action could be large numbers of reward seekers flocking to fires hoping to spot a drone operator and then later have a reward authorized for that fire.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick.

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Air tankers at La Grande, Oregon

T-10 at La Grande

T-10 (a BAe-146), another BAe-146, and an RJ85, La Grande, OR. Photo by Josh Annas.

Josh Annas took these photos of air tankers that were working out of Union County Airport in La Grande, Oregon (map) between July 20 and 24. The aircraft were working the Blue Creek Fire in the southwest corner of Washington.

Aaron tells us that on July 23, 13,000 gallons of Jet A fuel was used.

RJ85 at La Grande

An RJ85 at La Grande, OR. Photo by Josh Annas.

T-131 at La Grande

An RJ85 and T-131 (a C-130Q) at La Grande, OR, while a SEAT photo-bombs. Photo by Josh Annas.

Tanker 45, a P2V

Tanker 45, a P2V, at La Grande, OR. Photo by Josh Annas.

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Martin Mars drops on a fire near Skutz Falls, Vancouver Island

(Originally published at 8:52 a.m. PT, July 29, 2015)

Martin Mars on Skutz Falls Fire

Martin Mars on Skutz Falls Fire. Screen shot from video by Jody Kerrone.

This image of the Martin Mars dropping on a fire near Skutz Falls on Vancouver Island yesterday is a screen shot from a video by Jody Kerrone. We are unable to embed the video here, but you can see it on the Wildfire Today Facebook page.

The Martin Mars was preceded by a jet-powered lead plane, or Bird Dog as they are called in Canada.

The British Columbia Wildfire Service reports that the fire is 10 hectares (25 acres). Two helicopters were also working on the fire.

As far as we know, this is the second fire the Martin Mars has dropped on in the last couple of weeks.

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(UPDATE at 1:46 p.m. PT, July 29, 2015)

Wednesday afternoon Coulson Flying Tankers released the following information about the mission:

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“Last night the Mars made a total of six drops on the fire at Skutz Falls. The drops averaged 21,600 litres [5,706 gallons] per drop for a total of 130,000 litres [34,342 gallons] in approximately 1.5 hrs, beginning with the first scoop at 7:30 p.m.

The turn times averaged 15 minutes per drop which was excellent with some 8 minutes drop cycles. As there were other aircraft working on the fire we had to allow them the time to get clear prior to each drop. It was an example of great teamwork, working in tandem with the other aircraft.

The current fuel load allows the Mars to stay airborne for approximately 6 hours prior to refueling. With this much fuel on board at the beginning of the scooping cycles we have to scoop a few smaller loads until we burn enough fuel to get up to maximum load capacity.

Every aircraft is the same with regard to maximum fuel load. All aircraft have to balance the amount of fuel on board and take into account the outside air temperature as well as working altitude and then factor in the load capabilities. However for the most part smaller aircraft carry only enough fuel for a maximum of 3 hours.”

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Video of Tanker 131 dropping water on wildfire in Florida

In this video, Air Tanker 131, a C-130Q, is seen making two drops with water — instead of fire retardant — on the Mud Lake Complex of fires in Big Cypress National Preserve in south Florida. This is an unusual tactic for most large air tankers that normally drop retardant. It was a direct attack on the edge of the fire, rather than being offset as they would usually do with retardant. In the United States, federal policy does not allow retardant to be dropped near water. Many areas in the Mud Lake Complex were near wetlands.

Air tankers that can skim over the surface of a lake, scooping water to refill their tanks, usually drop water instead of retardant. Those aircraft include the Air Tractor Fire Boss, CL-215/415, and the Martin Mars.

Coulson Aviation attached a GoPro camera to the belly of their C-130Q to record the video in May, 2015.

If you are wondering how far water dropped by an air tanker spreads out laterally, check out this video of a scooper dropping on a vehicle fire in Canada.

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