Firefighting in Alaska in October

water bucket frozen
We understand that a person in Big Lake, Alaska forwarded this photo, via John T. Johnson. The helicopter was working on the Moose Creek Fire.

(Updated at 1:43 p.m. MDT October 21, 2016)

Firefighters are confident that the 303-acre Moose Creek fire north of Palmer, Alaska will be fully contained after this weekend.

We had a report that said it started last weekend when there were sustained 65 mph winds with temperatures as low as 15 degrees F.

Though the wind has abated, the cold conditions continue to pose problems for crews. Firefighters have had to winterize pumps and engines to keep the plumbing from freezing in the sub-freezing temperatures and any hose lines left out overnight are frozen in the morning. In addition, the cold temperatures have made conditions miserable for firefighters trying to stay warm. Firefighters are going through considerable amounts of coffee and hot chocolate to combat the cold temperatures.

Firefighters in 1968 saved the last Stinson A Trimotor from an approaching wildfire

Above: Bureau of Land Management wildland firefighters in Alaska pose in 1968 with the Stinson A Trimotor aircraft that they protected from a wildfire. Photo provided by Doug Lutz and used with permission.


This article first appeared on Wildfire Today.

In 1968 Doug Lutz and three of his companions left their jobs at Glacier National Park in Montana to “seek fame and fortune in Alaska”. They got hired by the Bureau of Land Management as wildland firefighters and were soon put to work on a wildfire within sight of Mt. McKinley. They only had hand tools, since at the time the logistics of providing gasoline for chain saws in the remote tundra was difficult, Mr. Lutz said.

With 15 of his co-workers, he volunteered for an assignment to protect a very unique aircraft from an approaching wildfire. It was the last Stinson A Trimotor in existence at that time, NC15165, one of only 31 or 32 that were built. It crashed in 1947 and J. D. “Red” Berry had been trying off and on since 1964 to get it out of the tundra.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Disciples of Flight written by Mr. Lutz, used here with his permission:

…[On] August 11, a helicopter set our crew of sixteen men down near the Stinson Trimotor somewhere near the Toklat and Kantishna Rivers to prepare for the oncoming fire. We figured we had about 24 hours to dig a fire line down to permafrost, cut the existing trees down, drag them to the outside of the fire line, and back-burn the fuel before the fire hit. We worked feverishly to prepare for the onslaught, resting only when we dropped from exhaustion. I marveled at the very reason for our task, as the Stinson Trimotor, partially dismantled, was the most incredible aircraft I had ever seen. The interior appeared to be in excellent condition and with a little imagination, it was easy to imagine what a splendid machine it was in its prime.

We thought we were pretty well prepared as the fire reached an old CAT a mile or two away that we were told had broken down trying to get the Stinson out sometime before. With a great explosion of the fuel drums, we knew our time was near. As the front hit us, the incredible heat, smoke, and wind generated by Z-83 (the BLM fire designation) defied comprehension and lies in my memory as the most vivid reminder of my insignificance in the grand plan of things. As an 18-year old boy, the next few days would transform me into a man with a little greater appreciation for life.

The only thing we could do with the fire was to constantly walk around the fire line and put out any spot fires that may have jumped. The smoke was so intense that the only way one could breathe was to drop to the ground, put your face on the tundra, and breathe the air pockets. Visibility was nil and the heat incredible. Thank God for Visine! We ran out of food on about the third day, drinking water was nearly gone, and our radio to the outside broke down. We were later told that BLM headquarters had pretty much given us up for lost and were contemplating notifying next of kin. Needless to say, we survived, but it certainly was no picnic. I recall having a rousing game of poker inside the Stinson A, although just being alive was the biggest jackpot we could think of at the time.

[…]

A snapshot was taken on the fourth day, August 14, by one of the guys who sent me a small print later that fall. The most vivid picture, however, resides only in my mind as the helicopter raised up to take us home. The two acres or so within the fire line was resplendent green, and as far as you could see in every direction was starkly black. And the Stinson Trimotor sitting in the center of the green circle, looking so proud and incredibly alive, remains as one of the most significant and indelible images of my life…

Mr. Lutz is in the photo above, in the bottom row, second from the right. He said the photo was taken by a member of the helicopter rescue crew with, he believes, Terry Wheeler’s camera.

By the early 1970s J.D. “Red” Berry, who had acquired the rights to the Stinson in 1964, retrieved the aircraft and sold it to Eugene Coppock. Mr. Coppock rebuilt it and had it flying again in 1979. The Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum purchased it in 1988 and ten years later sold it to Greg Herrick’s Golden Wings Museum at Blaine Airport in Minnesota, who restored it. H.O Aircraft  took on that job which required taking the aircraft COMPLETELY APART down to the frame, portions of which had to be fabricated and replaced.

Stenson A Trimotor
The restored Stenson A Trimotor. Photo by Ahunt at Sun ‘n Fun 2006 in Lakeland, Florida.

Mr. Lutz gave us some additional information about the Stenson A Trimotor:

Of the 30 or 31 Stinson A’s to be built, they lived a short life as a passenger plane as the DC2 and DC3 soon displaced them. Four of the Stinson A’s made it to Australia and the others were relegated to mail run airmail, although Air India used them commercially. They were perfect for bush pilots in Alaska. NC15165 crashed in 1947 on a mail run and sat there until Red Berry started an incredible journey to get it out of the tundra.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Doug Lutz.

Erickson receives contract for two helicopters in Alaska

Erickson made it more difficult to obtain contracts for their firefighting helicopters from the U.S. federal government when they bought two companies, expanding beyond the criteria for a “small business”. But they are still eligible for a contract in Alaska.

On Tuesday Erickson announced two exclusive-use contracts with the State of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources for wildfire suppression. The company will provide two medium-lift helicopters; one based in Palmer and another in Fairbanks. The contracts are for one year, with four additional option years.

Air Force hauls firefighting supplies to assist firefighting efforts in Alaska

Fire Supplies transported on Air Force plane

The U.S. Air Force joined the massive firefighting effort currently underway in Alaska on Sunday by helping to expedite an enormous load of firefighting supplies to Alaska from the Defense Logistics Agency to replenish the warehouse at the Alaska Fire Service. The bulk of the shipment, which weighed more than 127,000 pounds, was flown to Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks in a C-5M Galaxy transport plane from the 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base northeast of San Francisco.

The Defense Logistics Agency is the normal supply source for the federal wildland fire supply system and firefighting supplies are normally trucked to Alaska from the Lower 48. However, given the urgency of the situation, the U.S. Air Force offered to ferry the supplies to Alaska. The shipment included pumps, chainsaws, water handling equipment, prepackaged meals, fire clothing and assorted other kinds of durable and consumable supplies that are in demand due to the high fire activity in Alaska.

Air force plane hauling fire supplies

Eielson AFB southeast of Fairbanks was used as the delivery point because the Galaxy requires a longer runway than is available at Fort Wainwright just east of Fairbanks. Personnel from the Alaska Fire Service and Eielson Air Force Base then loaded the supplies onto flatbed tractor-trailers for transport to the Alaska Fire Service warehouse on Fort Wainwright.

Some of the supplies were transported to Alaska on previously scheduled USAF DC-10 flights.

These photos were taken Sunday, June 28, by BLM Alaska Fire Service public information officer Sam Harrel.

Fire supplies on ramp

U.S. air tankers in Alaska

palmer alaska air tankers
A photo of six air tankers at Palmer, Alaska on June 18, 2015, showing T-260, T-160, T-55, T-52, T-47 and T-43 (photo courtesy of John Bell). Click to enlarge.

In addition to the Canadian air tankers being assigned to Alaska (seven recently that we know of) there are three air tankers under contract with the U.S. Forest Service in the state, according to information we received from today from Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the agency:

  1. T-160 Aero-Flite RJ85
  2. T-10 Neptune BAe-146
  3. T-101 Aero Air MD87
BAe-146 and RJ85
A BAe-146, T-10, and an RJ85, T-160, on the BLM-Alaska Fire Service Tanker Base tarmac, May 23, 2015, on Ladd Air Field at Fort Wainwright.

Thanks and a tip of the hat goes out to Mike and John.

Additional resources arrive in Alaska

Smokejumpers in Alaska
Smokejumpers from BLM Boise, Idaho, board a CASA-212 to make their practice jump Saturday afternoon, May 23, 2015, at the BLM Alaska Smokejumpers Base on Ladd Air Field at Fort Wainwright.

Because of the recent high fire danger, additional resources, including three air tankers and 16 smokejumpers, have arrived in Alaska to bolster the aircraft fleet and jumpers already in place. These photos were taken and portions of the captions were written by Sam Harrel of the Bureau of Land Management/Alaska  Fire Service.

Smokejumpers in Alaska

Smokejumpers in Alaska
Smokejumpers from BLM Boise, Idaho, log their chutes as they prepare to make their practice jump Saturday afternoon, May 23, 2015, at the BLM Alaska Smokejumpers Base on Ladd Air Field at Fort Wainwright. Because of high fire danger in Alaska, 16 additional smokejumpers were brought to the state. Once the crews from Boise have completed their orientation to Alaska they will enter into the fire assignment rotation.
BAe 146and CL-415
Neptune’s Tanker 10, a BAe-146, and Aero-Flite’s Tanker 260, a CL-415 water scooper, Tuesday, May 19, 2015, at BLM Alaska Fire Service at Fort Wainwright. The two aircraft are new to fire suppression efforts in Alaska.
T-260 CL-415
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 260, a CL-415 water scooper, sits on the BLM-Alaska Fire Service tarmac at Ladd Field on Tuesday, May 19, 2015, at Fort Wainwright. T-260 is less than a year old.
BAe-146 and Convair CV580
A BAe-146 and a Convair CV580 at the BLM- Alaska Fire Service retardant tanker base Tuesday, May 19, 2015, on Ladd Field at Fort Wainwright. The Convair turboprop tankers have been used in Alaska for several years. This is the first season in Alaska for the jet propelled BAe 146.
BAe-146 and RJ85
A BAe-146, T-10, and an RJ85, T-160, on the BLM-Alaska Fire Service Tanker Base tarmac Saturday morning, May 23, 2015, on Ladd Air Field at Fort Wainwright.

Alaska state troopers helicopter crash caused by flight into bad weather and department’s “punitive culture”

I would be interested in hearing from our readers about how any lessons learned from this accident (summarized by the NTSB below) might be applicable to fire aviation. Often, the weather that allows for large wildfires is not in the form of rain, snow, and icing, however it can involve strong winds, turbulence, thunderstorms, and high density altitude conditions. Add the hazards of flying into canyons low and slow at 150 AGL and it can be a challenging, unforgiving environment.

One fatal accident that comes to mind is the MAFFS 7 crash that occurred July 1, 2012 as the aircraft was attempting to drop retardant on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota, killing four on board. It was basically blown into the ground by a downburst out of a thunderstorm as it was attempting to drop on the fire.

Below is the NTSB’s very brief summary of a helicopter crash in Alaska that killed three people.

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“WASHINGTON –The National Transportation Safety Board today determined that the March 30, 2013 crash of an Alaska Department of Public Safety helicopter was caused by the pilot’s decision to continue flying into deteriorating weather conditions as well as the department’s “punitive culture and inadequate safety management.”

The crash occurred on a mission to rescue a stranded snowmobiler near Talkeetna, Alaska. The pilot, another state trooper and the snowmobiler were all fatally injured. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s “exceptionally high motivation to complete search and rescue missions,” which increased his risk tolerance and adversely affected his decision-making, the Board found.

Among the recommendations the NTSB made today as a result of the investigation was for Alaska and other states to develop and implement a flight risk evaluation program.

“These brave few take great risks to save those in harm’s way,’’ said NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “There needs to be a safety net for them as well.”

Among the Board’s findings was that the Alaska Department of Public Safety (DPS) lacked policies and procedures to ensure that risk was managed, such as formal weather minimums, formal training in night vision goggle operations and having a second person familiar with helicopter rescue operations involved in the go/no-go decision.

During the investigation of this accident, the Board found that the pilot had been involved in a previous accident. The Board found that the DPS’s internal investigation of the earlier accident was too narrowly focused on the pilot and not enough on underlying risks that could have been better managed by the organization.

The Board concluded that DPS had a “punitive culture that impeded the free flow of safety-related information and impaired the organization’s ability to address underlying safety deficiencies relevant to this accident.”

Since 2004, the NTSB has investigated the crashes of 71 public helicopters responsible for 27 deaths and 22 serious injuries.

“Public agencies are not learning the lessons from each other’s accidents,” Hart said. “And the tragic result is that we have seen far too many accidents in public helicopter operations.”

As a result of the investigation, the Board made recommendations to Alaska, 44 additional states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and the Federal Aviation Administration.”

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The complete NTSB reports on the Alaska accident.