Shawna Legarza talks about aerial firefighting

The U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation discusses the wildfires in 2017 and the outlook for aerial firefighting in 2018

Above: Shawna Legarza speaks at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018.

(Originally published at 8:18 PDT March 13, 2018)

Shawna Legarza, the U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation, gave a presentation at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018. She said we are no longer experiencing fire seasons — fires now occur year round. Firefighters in Southern California have been saying that for a couple of decades, but the epidemic is spreading.

After her talk we spoke with her for a couple of minutes before she had to leave for a meeting in Arizona. We asked her about the firefighting aircraft that will be available in 2018.

Shawna Legarza fire aviation
Shawna Legarza speaks at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018.


Correlating wildfire occurrence with aircraft use

Can crunching the numbers in the annual fire reports provide any insight about how many aircraft are needed?

Above: Tanker 912, a DC-10, drops on the Lolo Peak Fire near Florence, Montana south of Missoula. Photo by John Ames.

(Originally published at 9:39 a.m. MT March 4, 2018)

Every year the National Interagency Fire Center compiles a Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics Report. It usually runs about 70 pages and has piles of data about fire occurrence, weather, and the resources deployed. Since the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts has varied from 44 to 9 since 2002, (and 13 this year) an obvious question is, how many do we need? The number of Type 1 helicopters was cut in 2017 from 34 to 28, and that reduction will remain in effect this year.

These numbers do not count aircraft on call when needed (CWN) contracts — aircraft that may or may not be available when the call goes out. Since CWN vendors earn no money unless they are activated, the companies have to charge more to stay afloat. In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal call when needed air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts. The hourly rate was 18 percent higher.

Two studies, completed 10 and 21 years ago, said there is a need for 35 or 41 air tankers.

I have been discussing the data in the annual reports with one of our frequent contributors, Bean Barrett, who has taken the data analysis to a different level. Some of the key information includes aircraft requests, unable to fill (UTF) rates, and fire occurrence. We both agree that UTF information is imperfect. It is very possible that if an Incident Commander or Dispatcher knows that no air tankers or helicopters are available, they may not waste time sending in a request. Tracking these historical non-requests at this time is impossible.

And, aircraft don’t put out fires. In ideal conditions they can slow it down enough to allow firefighters on the ground to move in and actually put it out — or at least stop the spread on a section of the fire.

With those caveats, check out the work below that Bean has done, crunching the numbers in the annual fire reports. On his graph legends, “T1-2” refers to Types 1 and 2 fixed wing air tankers. If there is an “H”, it is about helicopters. Type 1’s are larger than Type 2’s.

By Bean Barrett

Maybe there is a story in the data after all as far as air tankers go. All derived from NIFC data. Not exactly ops research but perhaps useful for some insight. Like all data, this was probably measured with a micrometer, marked with a felt tip pen, and cut with an axe. So don’t take this one to the bank.

Aircraft requests and fires larger than 40,000 acres

wildfire air tanker request data

I didn’t draw in the trend line on the fires above but the number of fires >40K acres is clearly increasing [red line].  The number of fires are on the right axis in red and the number of tanker requests by type are on the left axis.

Judging from the number of requests, the response to the increasing trend in large fires has been an increasing number of requests for T1/T2 air tankers [purple line]. Seems obvious.

What isn’t obvious is why the nearly straight line increase in fixed wing requests.  Is there some kind of learning curve going on that has resulted in a steady increase in the perceived or actual value of T1-2 fixed wing air tankers? This nearly constant rate of increase in demand needs explaining and nothing in the NIFC data helps.

The requests for helos remained flat. What is curious is that there is little difference between Type 1 Helos and Type 2 helos. You would think that there would be a larger increase in requests for Type 1 helos when there is an increase in the number of big fires.

Aircraft requests and the number of significant fires

wildfire air tanker request data

This slide looks at the number of requests and the number of NIFC significant fires. Significant fires are defined as >100 acres in timber or >300 acres in grass. The number of significant fires is on the right axis in red and the number of tanker requests by type are on the left axis.

I looked at significant fires because you would think that by the time a fire got to 100 acres / 300 acres someone would be thinking about air tanker IA support. Not much of a trend in the number of significant fires.

If anything, there has been a slight decrease in helo requests over the last three years while there has been a big increase in the number of significant fires. Why doesn’t the demand for helo support follow the number of significant fires? Aren’t helos used for IA? Are the majority of helo requests not related to suppression? Why isn’t the demand for helo support reflected in the number of fires?

Not much correlation between fixed wing requests and the number of significant fires pre 2014. Better in the last 3 years. Maybe fixed wing has been more involved in IA?  However, the next slide changed my mind.

Significant fires exceeding 40,000 acres and air tanker UTF rate

wildfire air tanker request data

Since there was no NIFC data on early suppression success rates when compared to tanker availability, I made an assumption for this and the next slide. I divided the number of fires > 40K acres by the number of significant fires and assumed that percentage roughly represented the significant fires that were not successfully suppressed before they could grow >40K acres. Percentage of significant fires that grew to >40K acres is on the right axis and the UTF % for T1/2 tankers is the left axis.

Up to 2014 it looks like fixed wing T1/2 UTF rates were correlated with the percentage of fires that grew >40K acres.  [High UTF rates meant more significant fires grew >40K acres].

However, UTF rates went down for the last 3 years and were unrelated to the number of significant fires that grew >40K acres. Fixed wing availability didn’t correlate well with suppression efforts that kept significant fires from growing >40K acres. Perhaps the majority of fixed wing requests are not for suppressing significant fires.

Significant fires exceeding 40,000 acres and helicopter UTF rate

wildfire helicopter request dataThis slide might be the most important one provided someone can sort out the difference between correlation and causation. The red line is the percentage of significant fires that grew>40K acres [right axis].  The UTF rate for helo types is on the left axis.

Interpretation 1. Helo availability is THE key to more effective early suppression and preventing significant fires from turning into large costly fires. When helo UTF rates were below 20%, significant fires that grew >40K acres were at or below 1.5%.  If this is indeed a causal relationship, contract for a much larger helo fleet for IA and the huge wildfire suppression bills will come down considerably.

Interpretation 2. Helos aren’t requested until a significant fire becomes unmanageable and then a large number of requests saturate the system resulting in a high UTF rate.   I tend to discount this interpretation because [see # Requests and Significant Fires above]  total request numbers don’t go up when the number of fires go up. They don’t. Only the UTF changes. This would indicate an overall helo inventory shortfall.

Either way, there simply aren’t enough helos when they are needed. If the number of helos under contract was closer to a reasonable objective, UTF rates would not have the peaks shown above.


Aviation photos from the Napa Valley fires, October, 2017

These photos of firefighting aircraft were taken by Will Campbell during the wildfire siege in Napa Valley, California last October.

Great job, Will, and thanks for permission to use them.

You can see more of Will’s photos at his Flickr site.

Napa Valley Fires October 2017 Will Campbell Napa Valley Fires October 2017 Will Campbell Napa Valley Fires October 2017 Will Campbell Napa Valley Fires October 2017 Will Campbell Napa Valley Fires October 2017 Will Campbell

Continue reading “Aviation photos from the Napa Valley fires, October, 2017”

Trial of dropping water on a wildfire at night begins in Australia

If successful, night-flying helicopters could be incorporated into the 2018/2019 summer bushfire season — then they will consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

Above: The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase two of the night-flying trial. Photo by Coulson.

(UPDATED at 8:40 a.m. MT February 28, 2018)

The test of firefighting helicopters dropping water at night has started in Victoria, Australia. If after the test the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approves hover-filling and dropping at night, the next step will be to consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

“Fighting fires in the dark hours, in the cooler part of the night or in the early parts of the morning would enable us to get on top of fires quicker, particularly those in remote parts of Victoria where access may be difficult,” Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said Monday.

“While the use of night vision goggles and infrared technology isn’t new, these have not been used together in Australia. We are very keen to trial this capability, and understand how it would work in a system, and make it safe to do so.”

CASA has approved the trial which will involve controlled conditions at all times.

The first of its kind in Australia, the test will be based at Ballarat Airport. Emergency Management Victoria is the lead with Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Country Fire Authority, and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre.

The trial will test the ability to hover-fill helicopters at night and the efficiency of night vision technology, including infrared systems and night vision goggles.

Several agencies in Southern California have been conducting night helicopter operations for years, but their SOPs require that they land to refill with water, rather than hover-fill. One of the reasons is that the B-212’s and B-412’s create too much mist for the pilots to see with night vision goggles.

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 drops water during the night-flying trial in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Coulson.

The results of the trial will guide the future use of night-time aerial firebombing operations in Victoria as well as other states and territories.

Two firefighting helicopters operated by Coulson Aviation are participating in the trial. A Sikorsky S-61 will drop water while a Sikorsky S-76 will provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator.

In the trial the S-76 Firewatch helicopter orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 water dropping operation. It used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the fire bombing helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles, but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

In the video below an australian official says the next step is to consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

Three Kamov helicopters expected to be operational in Portugal this fire season

Currently none of the six Kamov ships can be used on wildfires

Above: Kamov KA-32A on standby at Loulé heliport in Portugal. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 10 a.m. MT February 25, 2018)

Portugal’s Ministry of Internal Administration has said it expects three of their six Kamov helicopters to be operational for this wildfire season.

From The Portugal News, February 15, 2018:

Of the state’s three heavy helicopters, one has had mechanical problems since 2012, while the other two have been awaiting repairs since 2015 – none of these form part of the firefighting forces. The remaining three Kamovs that are included in the force are also currently out of action – two for maintenance and the other because of “lack of certification”.

In comments to Lusa News Agency, the ministry explains that the two Kamovs that are currently being repaired are being given their 10-year revision. The third is operational, “although unavailable [due] to lack of certification of a component by the aeronautics authority” and is set to go on for its 10-year revision this month.

However, the ministry says, these three Kamovs “should be operational for [use] in fighting fires” this year.

These aircraft have been surrounded in controversy since the second-hand  aircraft were purchased from Russians in 2007. Two of them have been grounded since they were acquired and others have been out of service for years at a time.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Algarve Daily News, September 6, 2016:

Major-General Francisco Grave Pereira, the head of Portugal’s National Civil Protection Authority, has had to resign and will face charges after the General Inspectorate of Internal Affairs (IGAI) accused him of a failure to act in the public interest in the Kamov fire-fighting helicopter purchase from the Russians and subsequent transfer to the private company Everjets.

One of the main beneficiaries of Portugal’s spate of fires is Everjets, bought by Domingos Névoa in 2015 along with a convenient long-term contract signed by the Civil Protection Authority.

The Inspectorate’s long-overdue report blamed Major-General Pereira for a breach of duty of care over the cost of repairs ordered by the Civil Protection Authority for the six helicopters, two of them remaining grounded ever since they were bought from the Russians.

The opening of the investigation came after the Civil Protection Authority detected “serious problems in the State-owned aircraft” which were transferred to Everjets.

Of the six Kamov helicopters bought, only three are fit to fly. Two have damaged mechanical systems and the third has never worked at all.

Meanwhile the government in Portugal is having difficulty awarding contracts for other helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, according to Publico, February 17, 2018 (roughly translated by Google):

With less than three months to go before the start of the critical fire phase, the government is struggling to close its international tender for the lease of 50 fire-fighting facilities between helicopters and airplanes for three years. The jury ruled out almost all the tenders that submitted to the competition, admitting only one company, Helibravo, to rent ten light helicopters, according to the preliminary report to which the PUBLIC had access.

If this award could be delayed because of the contestation, as for the remaining 39 aircraft, there is no way for the procedure to proceed. The Ministry of Home Affairs was left without proposals for another 27 light helicopters, four Canadair, six Fireboss amphibious aircraft, the twin-engine observation aircraft (which no one competed for) and the light helicopter to Madeira.

Kamov KA-32A
Kamov KA-32A on standby at Loulé heliport in Portugal. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In 2013 a KA-32 made a crash landing in British Columbia. Thankfully the two pilots walked away with no injuries.

Pilot Mark Oberman earns Airward for safe aviation actions during Thomas Fire

(This first appeared at

pilot Mark Oberman award
Channel Islands Aviation pilot Mark Oberman with Airward. NPS photo.

On Tuesday, December 5, 2017, an intense Santa Ana wind event hit Ventura County, California. Within hours, the Thomas Fire consumed over 30,000 acres and spread from Santa Paula to Ventura burning hundreds of homes. A number of Channel Island National Park employees who work out on the islands had mainland homes in areas that needed to be evacuated. It was urgent and important for park leadership to get all employees back to their families and homes as the Thomas fire evacuations were taking place. The park boats were unable to recover staff from the islands due to high winds and high seas.

Park leadership called Mark Oberman from Channel Islands Aviation to assess the possibility of flying the employees off the islands. Oberman agreed, and made three flights to the islands that day transporting park employees back to the mainland. Flying conditions were marginal due to turbulence from the winds and poor visibility from the smoke.

On the first outbound flight, Oberman stopped to pick up NPS personnel at the west end of Santa Cruz Island. That crew had a heavy load of gear, and Oberman had the judgment and experience to know that it would not be safe to take off from that airstrip with a heavy load in an east wind and declined the flight. After picking up personnel at two other islands, Oberman flew back over the main ranch strip on Santa Cruz and determined that he could safely land there. The personnel who had been left at the west end were directed to drive to the main ranch strip where Oberman safely picked them up and flew them to the mainland.

Photo of the Thomas Fire
Photo of the Thomas Fire as seen from Torrey Peak near Fillmore at 8:15 a.m. PST December 11, 2017.

It was exemplary that Oberman continually evaluated the risk while flying that day and turned down any risk that he felt would be excessive. This constant evaluation of safety led him to pick up the Santa Cruz staff and their gear at the main ranch strip after he had determined conditions were better there than at the west end of the island. The measure of a pilot is not merely in flying skills, but in judgment. Mark Oberman demonstrated not just excellent flying skills in dealing with the Santa Ana winds and turbulence, but excellent risk management and aviation safety judgment. He knew the limitations, how to mitigate risk, and had the experience to know how and where he could safely take off and land.

Returning park employees to their homes and families during the emergency was of crucial importance. Mark Oberman safely and successfully met the mission, while not taking unnecessary risk due to the urgency of the situation. The level of skill and soundness of judgment are qualities the National Park Service values in a pilot and recognizes Mark Oberman with an Airward.

As one of the most destructive fires to hit southern California in decades, the Thomas fire and December 5, 2017 will be remembered by many. Employees of Channel Island National Park are indebted to Mark Oberman and Channel Island Aviation for his safe aviation actions on that day.

Coulson helicopters to participate in Australian night-flying trial

The project will begin February 23 with two Sikorsky helicopters, an S-61 and an S-76.

Above: Coulson night-flying helicopter, a Sikorsky S-61. Coulson photo.

(Originally published at 11:10 MT February 21, 2018)

Two firefighting helicopters operated by Coulson Aviation will be participating in a night-flying trial in Victoria, Australia. When we first reported on this project, Richard Alder, General Manager of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre said, “We are just in the process of selecting the helicopters that are planned to be used, and should be able to release this information shortly. We currently have helicopters on contract that use night vision goggles for reconnaissance, m​apping, and incendiary dropping, so the planned trial is really about having the capability to extend firebombing into the night.”

One of Coulson’s Sikorsky S-61’s, Helicopter 347, that was already working on a firefighting contract in Australia will be dropping water during the trial. It will be working with another of the company’s helicopters, a Sikorsky S-76, which will provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. The S-76 was not in the country but was transported there from Canada in a 747 on February 14.

The video below includes a September trial of the two aircraft working with night vision goggles showcasing how the two aircraft interact with each other.

The trial will begin February 23 in the state of Victoria.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

For next fiscal year, President proposes cuts in wildfire aviation but the same number of USFS firefighters

Above:  Three water-scooping air tankers, CL-415’s, at Redding, July 30, 2017. T-263 on the left and T-261 on the right. Photo by Ethan. 

(Originally published at 1:07 p.m. MT February 19, 2018)

The budget recommended by President Trump for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year 2019 beginning in October includes stable numbers for wildland firefighters and cuts in fire aviation.

The FY19 firefighter numbers would be the same as in the two previous years, FY17 and FY18:

  • 900 Engines
  • 210 Dozers, Tractor Plows, and Water Tenders
  • 67 Hot Shot Crews (1,340 firefighters)
  • 7,940 other Firefighters
  • 320 Smoke Jumpers
  • 400 Fire Prevention Technicians

The firefighters above total 10,000, the same as in the last several years.

The only FY19 cuts recommended by the President to firefighting resources are in aviation:

  • 28 Type 1 large Helicopters, down from 34 in FY17, and the same as in FY18.
  • “Up to 18” Large Air Tankers, down from 20 in FY17 and up from 13 in FY18.
  • No HC-130H Coast Guard/USFS converted air tankers, down from one. The President intends to abandon this program.
  • No Water Scooping Air Tankers. There were two in FY17 and none in FY18.

These cuts are in spite of the fact that the number of acres burned annually in the United States continues to increase.

total acres burned wildfires United States 1990-2017

fire budget FY19 resources summary
Click to enlarge.

This recommended budget for the Forest Service is only a suggestion by the President. Congress is not obligated to respect his wishes and could do anything from passing a series of continuing resolutions locking in budget numbers from the previous year, to passing something completely different. Or, doing nothing and shutting down the government again.

More information about the reduction in firefighting aircraft.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.