Colorado county approves first-of-its-kind deal with Global SuperTanker Services

Above: 747 Supertanker in Chile, January 26, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A Colorado county on Tuesday approved a deal that sets the stage for a response from the largest firefighting aircraft in the world if and when major wildfires flare up near Denver, marking the culmination of a first-of-its-kind contract.

Commissioners in Douglas County on Tuesday approved the one-year, $200,000 deal with Global SuperTanker Services LLC that gives the county access to the mammoth Boeing 747-400 aircraft that can drop roughly 20,000 gallons of water or retardant — nearly double the capacity of its closest rival, the DC-10.

The deal is unique in that it gives the 800-square-mile county situated between Denver and Colorado Springs exclusive access to the SuperTanker.

“Douglas County is establishing a model for wildland fire-prone municipalities to follow,” Bob Soleberg, senior vice president and program manager for Global SuperTanker, said in a statement Tuesday night to Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation. “Their planning is comprehensive and designed to protect lives, property and the natural resources.”

The county’s office of emergency management requested approval of the deal, citing “ongoing dry conditions in and around Douglas County and coupled with the limited air resources in the region for the purpose of wildland fire suppression,” according to county documents proposing the contract.

drop Tanker 944 747-400
The first drop from Tanker 944, the 747-400 operated by Global Supertanker.
The Denver Post first reported elements of the proposed contract on Monday.

Director of Emergency Management Tim Johnson told the newspaper the move was part of a multi-pronged effort ensuring adequate air power existed when fires ignited. From The Post: 

Douglas County has firefighting contracts with Castle Rock-based Rampart Helicopter Service, Broomfield-based HeliQwest, Loveland-based Trans Aero Ltd., and 10 Tanker Air Carrier, which uses DC-10s carrying more than 11,000-gallons capacity on board. It also has access to state and federal firefighting air resources.

“We need redundancies in our abilities during fire season because the resources may not always be available — we want to be able to go down a list,” Johnson said. “We’re leaning forward in terms of preparedness.”

Specific terms and conditions of the contract are available beginning on page 382 of this county commissioners’ board meeting packet, available here.

Avid readers of this website might remember that the SuperTanker made headlines earlier this year when it responded to Chile. Fire Aviation’s own Bill Gabbert embedded with that crew for more than a week and chronicled the trip online.

747 SuperTanker
Local firefighters keep portable tanks full of water that will be used to refill the 747 SuperTanker. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Air resources assisting crews working San Diego-area Gate Fire

Air resources continued to play a major role in containing the Gate Fire burning in San Diego County since Saturday.

The fire grew to 1,500 acres by Sunday morning, though crews made progress overnight, aided by cooler temperatures and higher humidity levels, Cal Fire reported. No structures have been damaged, and no injuries were reported.

Five airtankers and three helicopters were making drops on fire at one point Saturday, said Cal Fire Capt. Isaac Sanchez, according to the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper. Fire crews from several agencies were helping on the ground.

Evacuation orders lasted into Sunday.

Colorado studying SEAT-dropped water enhancer effectiveness during 2017 wildfire season

Above: State-contracted SEAT T-831 drops sunset orange FireIce HVO-F®. Courtesy photo.

Efforts are underway in Colorado to better evaluate how water enhancers delivered from a single engine air tanker can be more effective than retardants in fighting wildfires.

Colorado historically has only loaded long-term retardant into SEATs. These chemical concentrates are mixed with water and alter fuels so they do not support combustion. Retardant is dropped adjacent to — or ahead of — the fire to create a chemically induced fire break at its perimeter.

Molecular bonds from water enhancers, however, slow evaporation by creating a thermal protective coating. SEAT drops of water enhancers are mainly used in direct attack to slow or halt the fire’s rate of spread long enough for ground resources to access the fireline and mop up or supplement the knockdown process.

These gels have generally been limited in use in recent years, and field testing has been minimal. Information about water enhancers’ availability, use and effectiveness is sparse at best.

The study, lasting throughout the 2017 wildfire season in Colorado, has the following objectives, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control:  

  1. Observe and evaluate drops of water enhancers on wildfires and record information about 1) whether the water enhancer stopped or slowed the forward advance of the fire; 2)whether the water enhancer reduced fire intensity to a sufficient level for ground crews to manage the fire; and 3) whether the water enhancer persists on the surface fuels long enough to prevent hotspots from redeveloping or the fire from burning through the drop.
  2. Determine whether water enhancers delivered from a SEAT are effective on wildfires in Colorado. Effectiveness will be viewed in terms of how effective the products were in achieving the desired suppression objectives.
  3. Collect as much data as possible regarding the effectiveness of water enhancers used during initial attack and on emerging fires.
  4. Share lessons learned from the evaluations with interested parties, including cooperators and researchers.
  5. Test and evaluate newly developed ground-based mixing/batching equipment to assess the efficiency of the mixing and loading processes and the ability of the equipment to reduce response times.

“SEATs loaded with water enhancers will respond to fires on State and private land, as well as to fires under the jurisdiction of BLM, the National Park Service, and USFS. Mixing will be at the recommended ratios in the USFS Qualified Products List for each product on all drops. For the first load on each fire, State and Federally contracted SEATs will respond to the incident with water enhancer unless the ordering unit clearly specifies the need for LTR instead.

Decisions regarding where, when and how to apply a particular aerial retardant or suppressant are typically under the discretion of the Incident Commander, so if at any time the Incident Commander or the Air Tactical Group Supervisor feels that the enhancers are not performing as desired, the Incident Commander can immediately order that the SEATs be loaded with retardant.

The three water enhancers being evaluated in the study are: FireIce HVO-F, BlazeTamer 380, and Thermo-Gel 200L — each is approved by the U.S. Forest Service for use in SEATs.

The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, with support from the Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Aviation Unit and the Bureau of Land Management, is conducting the study.

After weighing input from researchers and firefighters, investigators will compile a preliminary and final report about the project’s findings.

Nevada Forestry and National Guard helicopter bucket training

Personnel from Nevada this week conducted aerial fire suppression and water bucket training on the heels of a wet winter and ahead of what could quickly turn into a very active summer for area firefighters.

Training throughout the week included several scenarios that mirrored real situations.

“In advance of what promises to be a challenging fire suppression season, this training aims to improve interagency crew cooperation and interaction, especially communication between ground and air crews,” National Guard spokesman Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka said, according to the Record-Courier newspaper. 

A bucket drop test during training with the Nevada Division of Forestry and Nevada National Guard. Courtesy photo.
A bucket drop test during training with the Nevada Division of Forestry and Nevada National Guard. Courtesy photo.

Drones being added to Grand Canyon-area wildfire toolbox

Above: An example of one type of drone that can be used to assist in wildfire operations. 

Wildland firefighters at Grand Canyon National Park have added drones to their toolkits, marking the latest iteration of unmanned aircraft systems’ love-hate relationship when it comes to wildfire. 

Rangers have started using drones to scout fires from above, the Grand Canyon News reported. From the article published Tuesday:

Justin Jager, interagency aviation officer for Grand Canyon National Park, Kaibab and Coconino National Forests and Flagstaff and Verde Valley Area National Monuments, said the drones are utilized in conjunction with traditional methods. Operators use the devices to scout fire lines, or communicate information to other personnel in the area.

The unmanned systems aren’t replacing fixed-wing scouting planes. Rather, they’re being used to search a fire’s outer edges and providing intelligence that can help establish stronger fire lines.

Also from the Grand Canyon News: 

“We’re taking what we’re learning and creating a guide for other agencies, like BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or other national parks to create their own programs,” Jager said. “I think they can all benefit from adding this tool.”

Drones and the Grand Canyon have been in the news for other reasons of late, most recently in assisting search and rescue operations for LouAnn Merrell and her step-grandson Jackson Standefer. Both went missing in April while on a hike — the boy’s body has since been recovered, though the woman has not yet been located.

Grand Canyon National Park is the only park with its own fleet of unmanned aircraft that can be used for locating people who have gotten lost, stranded, injured or killed. Under a program that began last fall, it has five drones and four certified operators, the Associated Press reported. 

The drones are about 18 inches across and 10 inches high, with a battery life of about 20 minutes. Drone operators watch the video in real time and then analyze it again at the end of the day.

As fire season revs up, so will conversations about the crossroads of the devices and wildfire. While crews have successfully used drones for recon and to aid in igniting prescribed burns, it’s only a matter of time until a curious hobbyist — once again — flies too close to firefighting operations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has come out in the past 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.”

That didn’t matter. After a string of incidents last year, the FAA warned in a mass email to recreational drone operators that those “who interfere with wildfire suppression efforts are subject to civil penalties of up to $27,500 and possible criminal prosecution.”

Looking for more about the intersection of drones and wildfire? This dated, yet relevant, Smithsonian video below documents the use of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Drone in the August, 2013, Rim Fire in California.

Video: DC-10 makes drop on West Mims Fire

As firefighters on the ground continue efforts to get a handle on the West Mims Fire on the Georgia-Florida border, the attack from the air has intensified.

The Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT), a DC-10 fitted with a retardant delivery system, arrived Tuesday afternoon but was only able to make one fire retardant drop before low visibility due to settling smoke made subsequent air operations unsafe, officials said.

The aircraft made two 12,000-gallon retardant drops on Wednesday. Extreme conditions are expected to continue through the rest of the week, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees and winds gusting to 20 mph forecast — Red Flag Warnings are also expected to be issued in the area.

The blaze remains the largest and most active currently burning in the U.S., having already charred about 144,000 acres. It remains just 12 percent contained.

DC-10 tanker joins West Mims Fire efforts

Above: A helicopter makes a water drop next to the road in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on the West Mims Fire. Photo via InciWeb.

Additional air resources arrived on Tuesday to join crews battling the 140,000-acre West Mims Fire on the Georgia-Florida border.

The Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT), a DC-10 fitted with a retardant delivery system, arrived Tuesday afternoon but was only able to make one fire retardant drop before low visibility due to settling smoke made subsequent air operations unsafe, officials said. The aircraft is capable of dumping 11,600 gallons (44,000 liters) of chemical fire retardant in a single run, and it joins more than 700 firefighters and support personnel working to contain the blaze with bulldozers, helicopters and smaller planes.

The DC-10 is stationed in Chattanooga, Tenn., hundreds of miles away from the fire. Though clear across the entire state of Georgia, that location is the closest airport rated to handle the needs of a place its size, officials said.

Crews caught a break on Tuesday — the fire wasn’t as active as it had been of late, though temperatures still hit 96 degrees with relative humidity hovering about 19 percent.

“For the first time in 3 days, the fire was not as aggressive as was anticipated,” incident commanders wrote in the Tuesday evening update, posted to InciWeb. 

Hotter conditions and gusty winds are forecast for Wednesday.

Eight heavy helicopters and six heavy air tankers will be supporting ground operations Wednesday, as conditions allow.

The lightning-sparked fire started April 6 has burned 140,400 acres and remains just 12 percent contained.

DC-10 air tanker Utah
A DC-10 on a fire in Utah. Posted on Twitter by the Alpine Hotshots September 4, 2016.

One dead after helicopter makes emergency landing in South Korea

A firefighting helicopter crew member died Monday during operations in the Gangwon Province of South Korea.

According to The Korean Times, the man “passed out as the aircraft made an emergency landing in Samcheok.” He was pronounced deceased after he was transferred to an area hospital, and early indications suggest the helicopter was forced to land after striking a high-tension power line.

At least 60 helicopters and 10,000 people have been mobilized for firefighting efforts in three areas, and residents across the region were urged to evacuate, the Korea JoonGang Daily reported.