Using infrared to detect gaps in retardant coverage

One of Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft shot this infrared video of an air tanker making a drop on the 500-acre Hunter Fire southwest of Meeker, Colorado about five days ago. Heat from the fire shows up as white and water or retardant drops are dark grey or black. It appears that the air tanker is attempting to fill in a gap in a retardant line, but as you can see, incomplete coverage remains.

The air tanker is very hard to see — it’s just a little dot, but it becomes obvious when the retardant is released. This shows the value of an air attack ship having infrared capabilities; the crew can direct aircraft to fill in gaps in retardant lines, in addition to mapping the fire perimeter.

Single Engine Air Tankers are a very important tool in the firefighter’s tool box, but this also shows the value of large and very large air tankers. A much longer drop means fewer gaps to worry about.

Forest Service cancels procurement of new air tanker

The U.S. Forest Service has canceled the solicitation issued on November 18, 2016 for the acquisition of one to seven new multi-engine air tankers. It was thought by some that this procurement would spend the $65 million appropriated by Congress in December, 2014 “for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety…”.

The specifications appeared, after a brief perusal, to fit a C-130-type aircraft, including Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J, a demilitarized version of the C-130J that is rumored to sell, when it becomes available, for about $65 million.

Lockheed's LM-100J
Lockheed Martin’s LM-100J. An artist’s conception of it using a slip-in MAFFS to dispense fire retardant. Lockheed image.

When we inquired about the reasons for the cancellation and the plans for spending the appropriated $65 million, USFS spokesperson Jennifer Jones said the only information available was:

The U.S. Forest Service is reviewing its requirements for the airtanker.

With the reports in the national news since January 20 about massive budget cuts for federal agencies, it is not surprising that this aircraft would be axed. The fact that the official word from the USFS is they are “reviewing [their] requirements” looks like they are hesitant to own an action that would reduce planned spending for homeland security, in the form of support for firefighters.

LA Fire Department intends to use drones

Above: A drone was tested at Homestead National Historic Site April 22, 2016 to determine the feasibility of using it to ignite a prescribed fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Los Angeles Fire Department is seeking approval to use drones to provide additional situational awareness for firefighters. They will be following in the footsteps of the Austin and New York City Fire Departments that have been operating drones for a while.

According to SPCR.org:

The main reason is to increase firefighter safety. And some good examples might be, a long duration structure fire. By long duration I mean 30 minutes or longer. We could put up a UAV in the air and then have the image transmitted down to the command post, down in the street. The incident commander can then determine whether or not we should deploy firefighters to ventilate the roof. That’s a good example of how they would enhance firefighter safety.

The Department’s next step is to obtain approval from the Public Safety Committee, the City Council, and eventually the Federal Aviation Administration. They are optimistically hoping to have all the permissions by August, 2017.

Interesting assortment of emergency equipment at Whitehorse

Above: Tanker 47 (a Convair 340-31), Tanker 49 (a Convair 440-580), an F-18, and a couple of fire engines at Whitehouse International Airport, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada June 6, 2017. Photo by Doug Cote.

Doug Cote sent us this photo and said the annual migration of air tankers to Alaska is ongoing. He shot this photo today of an assortment of emergency equipment at Whitehorse.

L.A. City Council questions why maintenance issues prevented two helicopters from responding to a wildfire

LA CITY HELICOPTERS
A Los Angeles City Fire Department AW139 sits atop LAPD’s Hooper Heliport, still recognized today as the busiest heliport in the world. Photo by Ryan Mason.

This article first appeared at Heliweb.com. It is used here with permission.

By Ryan Mason

Councilors from the Los Angeles City Council have demanded answers from the city’s general services department that is responsible for maintenance of both the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) A-Star fleet and the city’s fleet of Leonardo AW139’s and Bell 412 helicopters, giving administrators a two week deadline to outline why the backlog of maintenance occurred and to also detail any backlogs that exist regarding the fleets of the LAPD and Department of Water and Power for comparison.

Los Angeles City Fire is scheduled to receive another Aw139 in the coming months as the department cycles out the remainder of Bell 412 helicopters operated by the fire department for the much larger AW139 that is fitted with a belly tank for firefighting duties. the LAFD recently donated one of the departments Bell 412 helicopters to the LAPD to use for speacialty training and deployment that will likely fill the gap left when the department pulled their last remaining UH-1H from service several years ago.

The general services department released a statement late last week reaffirming their commitment to ensuring that all LAFD helicopters were returned to service as quickly as possible and that all backlogs would also be cleared as soon as they could be completed.

Vendors with SEAT contracts

Single Engine Air Tankers

Above: Tanker 466 operated by New Frontier Aviation reloads while working a wildfire south of Angostura Reservoir in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota (and other states) typically have SEATs on contract during the summer. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Here is a list of the companies that currently have Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) under U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management contracts. This list does not include SEATs working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs or other federal or state agencies.

USFS, exclusive use:

  • Air Spray USA, Inc.

BLM, call when needed (or “on call”). There are no SEATs under BLM exclusive use contract at this time:

  • Aerial Timber
  • Aero Seat
  • Aero Spray
  • Air Spray
  • CO Fire Aviation
  • Columbia Basin Helicopters
  • Evergreen Flying Services
  • Fletcher Flying Services
  • GB Aerial Applications
  • Henry’s Aerial Service
  • M&M Air Service
  • Minutemen Aerial
  • New Frontier Aviation
  • Queen Bee Air Specialties
  • Western Pilot

BLM struggling to keep SEATs under contract

Above: Tanker 892, a SEAT, drops near the Aldrich Lookout Tower on the Sunflower Fire in Grant County, Oregon in 2014. Photo by Todd McKinley.

For the previous three years the Bureau of Land Management had 33 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) under Exclusive Use (EU) contracts. As we enter the 2017 wildfire season there are none.

In 2014 the agency awarded EU contracts for 33 SEATs that guaranteed one year with a 100-day Mandatory Availability Period and four additional optional years. In 2016 the vendors were notified that two optional years, 2017 and 2018, would not be activated. One of the affected aircraft companies told us that the BLM said the reason was a lack of funds. (UPDATE May 31: Jessica Gardetto, a BLM spokesperson, responded today to an earlier mail from us, explaining that the funds allocated in that 2014 contract had been spent, therefore they had to start over again with a new contract.)

In August, 2016 the agency began the solicitation process for a new EU contract. After it was awarded four vendors filed a total of six protests with the Government Accountability Office. As of today, May 30, 2017, four of those have been dismissed and two are still undecided.

Currently the only BLM SEAT contract in effect is a Call When Needed, or On Call contract that was awarded several weeks ago. There were seven SEATs actively working in the Southwest Geographic Area on an On Call basis.

An aircraft vendor that operates SEATs told us that one of the issues his company is concerned about is the evaluation process for rating and selecting which vendors receive contract awards. He said the BLM places far too much emphasis on the empty weight of the aircraft while not considering enhancements that may add weight, but contribute to effectiveness and safety. The lightest SEAT is automatically favored, he said, while those with a backup radio, single point fueling behind the wing, GPS, a better performing Trotter retardant gate, ADS-B, larger engine, or a larger prop are penalized.

He said, “I just want to see a fair and impartial evaluation”.

One of the factors that almost destroyed the large air tanker industry around the turn of the century was the U.S. Forest Service’s over emphasis on the lowest bid price. This forced potential tanker vendors to resort to discarded aircraft designed for World War II and the Korean War and gave them little incentive to perform routine but expensive inspections and maintenance. In 2002 when the wings literally fell off two large air tankers in mid-air killing five crew members, the USFS started to re-think their lowest cost policy. Over the next 10 years the number of large air tankers on EU contracts declined from 44 to 9. Following that lost decade the USFS contracting process and the vendors’ fleets were reinvented.

Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the BLM said, “The BLM will ensure that we have adequate SEATs/wildland firefighting resources for the 2017 fire season, regardless of how we contract our aircraft. The BLM will provide an adequate response to all wildfire activity, whether it’s an extreme, normal, or below-normal fire season this year.”