In lining up the DC-7 air tanker for his first retardant drop on the Almeda Drive Fire southeast of Medford, Oregon on September 8, 2020, Pilot Scot Douglas looked out of the window of Tanker 60 and saw his wife and daughter hosing down their yard. The fire was spreading north toward his neighborhood pushed by 40 to 45 mph winds out of the southeast. The wind aligned with the Interstate 5 corridor as it burned through communities like a blowtorch for 8 miles, starting north of Ashland and tearing through the cities of Talent and Phoenix.
His neighborhood was evacuated. His family went to Ashland with friends and he spent that night in a Medford motel. It wasn’t until he made more drops the next day that he saw his home had survived.
It is not common for air tankers to drop on densely populated communities. Former Oregon Department of Forestry District Forester Dave Larson told KDRV that as homes started to burn in large numbers and thousands of residents became threatened, he had to make a quick decision.
“It was a fast-moving fire,” says Larson, “and those resources like the air attack were in the air over by the Grizzly Fire and immediately diverted that call because of the conditions that day.”
“With the air tankers it’s pretty rare to drop on cities,” says Larson, “that way it came down to a tactic. Because of evacuations, trying to slow the fire down and steer it away from people trying to get out of there because the roads were closed.”
Although the residential areas where the air tankers dropped were not under ODF jurisdiction, Larson gave the order anyway as officials on the ground and in the sky saw the increasing threat to human lives.
On November 19, 2020 Jackson County authorities estimated that 2,357 residences were destroyed in the 3,200-acre Almeda Drive Fire.
Five weeks later on October 14 Tanker 60, a DC-7B (N838D), completed its last season as an aerial firefighting machine and departed from Medford, Oregon when the contract with the state of Oregon ended. Tim Crippen, who took the photo below, said it gave a wing wave to the tanker base as it passed by en route to Madras, Oregon.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group has just published a revision of the Standards for Aerial Supervision. The document has been on a schedule to be updated every three years.
From the NWCG:
The NWCG Standards for Aerial Supervision establishes standards for aerial supervision operations for national interagency wildland fire operations. These standards:
Promote safe, cost-efficient, and effective aviation services in support of agency and interagency goals and objectives.
Support standardization of Aerial Supervision operations, training, certification, and currency.
Standardize Aerial Supervision mission procedures to enhance safety, effectiveness, efficiency, and professionalism.
Provide guidance on aerial firefighting strategy, tactics, and risk management.
Provide or reference other performance support materials for aerial supervisors.
Supplemental documents for the NWCG Standards for Aerial Supervision, PMS 505, are found at https://www.nwcg.gov/publications/505. These documents are separate to enable the use and editing of forms and logs as appropriate.
They also want to add 54 surge engines, 4 more Firehawks, 10 contract helicopters, and 10 additional dozers
The proposal for California’s next budget during the 2022-2023 fiscal year beginning in July includes funding to expand the capabilities of a real time fire mapping system. A pilot program for the Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) first got off the ground September 1, 2019 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).
At that time the state of California partnered with the Orange County Fire Authority in securing $4.5 million in state funds for technology that increases the real-time information and situational awareness available to the firefighters and other first responders and managers on all-hazards events, including wildfires. It has the capability of making real time aerial video available to personnel on the ground so that they can make better evacuation, strategic, and tactical decisions and increase the safety of personnel.
FIRIS can also transmit near real time fire perimeter and heat maps to a supercomputer at the University of California San Diego that runs WIFIRE spread projections based on the data collected by the aircraft. The output estimates where the fire will be in the next six hours and can adjust for successful fire suppression actions by firefighters on the ground and in the air. This intel allows for more timely and accurate decision making for resource allocation and evacuations.
The 150-day pilot program in 2019 started with $4.5 million. Now that it has proved its worth, the Governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year would allocate $36 million to expand the capacity of FIRIS, making it more available to first responders across the state.
More helicopters, dozers, and engines
The FY 2022-2023 draft budget includes funds to augment the state’s aviation program until the seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft will be fully converted to air tankers, expected in 2023. As best as we could determine, no retardant delivery systems have been installed in any of the aircraft. Some of them most likely still have a need for depot level maintenance.
The budget would appropriate $45 million annually for three years to secure exclusive use contracts for ten additional privately owned exclusive use helicopters that could carry 1,000 to 2,000 gallons of water or retardant.
The proposed budget includes $99 million in 2022-2023 and $11.7 million ongoing to purchase four additional helicopters. California is already two-thirds of the way toward replacing CAL FIRE’s 12 Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters with new Sikorsky S70i Firehawks. Eight of the new ships are already in the state, but some may not have been officially accepted yet by the contracting officers. Four more are still being built by Sikorsky or outfitted for firefighting by a company in Colorado. If the new purchase is approved by the legislature it would increase the number of recently purchased Firehawks to 16 when they are all delivered.
The draft budget allocates $243 million in 2022-2023 and $245 million in 2023-2024 for a comprehensive package to increase the pace and scale of forest health activities and reduce wildfire risk.
A helicopter under contract to the government of Argentina crashed Wednesday, Dec. 29 while working on a wildfire in the Patagonia region of the country according to local press reports. The two on board, a pilot and a mechanic, were killed.
The Bell 412 helicopter went down near Quillen, a lake in Neuquen province.
More than 200 personnel are assigned to the fire which has burned 9,900 acres (4,000 hectares) in or near Nahuel Huapi National Park.
The Federal Council of the Environment (Cofema) of Argentina and the Argentine Ministry of the Environment have declared an emergency throughout Argentina for the last 12 months due to drought and the risk of fires.
We send our sincere condolences to the family, friends, and co-workers of the two firefighters.
Monday afternoon December 27 a fire southwest of Denver burned 152 acres and prompted evacuations.
The Oak Fire was reported around 2 p.m. southwest of Columbine, southwest of the C470 highway which was temporarily closed. West Metro Fire said it started near the C470/Kipling intersection west of the Westerly Apartments in an open space area with several trails and heavy foot traffic. The specific cause is still under investigation. The evacuations were cancelled Monday evening.
A single engine air tanker from CO Fire Aviation was mobilized from Fort Morgan, Colorado, flown by the company’s Chief Pilot Chris Doyle. The Air Tractor took off at 3:46 p.m. and 20 minutes later landed at Northern Colorado Regional Airport NCRA near Fort Collins to get a load of plain water which took about 10 minutes. It then made the 19-minute flight south to the fire where it quickly sized it up, dropped the water just before sunset, and returned to NCRA.
The fire was driven by strong winds. Buckley Air Force Base on the east side of Denver recorded 22 to 28 mph out of the south with gusts to 35 while the relative humidity was in the high 20s with the temperature in the high 30s. However it was cooler on the other side of the city at a higher elevation near the fire, judging from the ice seen on the landing gear in the photo above.
Firefighters always get a lot of satisfaction conducting a mobile attack. The videos below show how an engine drives near the edge of the fire while one or two firefighters operate nozzles while walking, sometimes one in front of the engine and another picking up what’s left behind the truck. Or a second engine could followup, making sure all the heat near the edge is extinguished.
The #OakFire has slowed somewhat, but it’s still being driven by strong winds. There are no air resources available in the region. Neighboring fire districts are assisting on the ground. Two buildings at the Westerly Apts have been evacuated. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/XwmpxkR8cW
A current helicopter solicitation that is now paused was offering 1-year contracts
With the expiration of contracts for firefighting helicopters looming, the US Forest Service began the lengthy process of issuing new contracts for 2022 on July 7, 2021 with the posting of a “presolicitation.” The new concept was based on a one year contract. The FS would have had the option at their discretion to extend it further in one year increments, up to 9 years for Call When Needed (CWN) helicopters and up to 4 years for Exclusive Use (EU) ships.
In addition to just a one year guarantee, there were new requirements for equipment to be added to the aircraft requiring significant additional expenditures for the private companies bidding on the services.
There are reports that some potential vendors were very unsatisfied with the changes. The FS contracting office posted more than a dozen versions of the presolicitation between July 7 and December 6.
Finally on December 13 they threw in the towel, saying, “The USFS has determined there is not enough time for an adequate response from industry, a complete evaluation by the government, and ultimately timely award prior to the start of 2022 mandatory availability periods.”
Here is the full text from the December 13 update:
The intent of the USFS for acquiring helicopter services for 2022 is as follows:
1. Basic Ordering Agreements (BOAs) for 28 – Type 1 helicopters having 120-day mandatory availability periods.
2. 6-month Exclusive Use (EU) contract extensions for 34 – Type 2 helicopters with contracts expiring in 2022, utilizing BOAs for remaining EU line items.
3. 6-month EU contract extensions for Type 3 helicopters with contracts expiring in 2022, utilizing BOAs for remaining EU line items.
4. The USFS will continue to review and refine the Multiple Award Task Order Contract (MATOC) solicitation. The USFS intends to make parent awards Summer/Fall 2022, with task orders being competed/awarded after parent awards.
The USFS has determined there is not enough time for an adequate response from industry, a complete evaluation by the government, and ultimately timely award prior to the start of 2022 mandatory availability periods.
The December 13 update did not mention CWN helicopters, so we asked USFS Fire Communications Specialist Stanton Florea about their status. He replied:
The existing Call When Needed (CWN) Basic Ordering Agreement (BOA) will be utilized for both Type 1 and Type 2 CWN helicopters. The BOA will be used as noted for both Exclusive Use (EU) and CWN Type 1 contracts in 2022. We will award the EU 28 120-day Mandatory Availability Period Type 1 contracts using the CWN BOA to fill the 28 EU line items.
Moving to 10-year contracts for firefighting aircraft was mentioned several times in an April 15 hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, featuring U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen and her testimony.
“One thing I’ve been dealing with,” Rep. Mike Simpson said, “are the aviation assets of the Forest Service… Are we going to have a clear outline for the next 10-year plan for what the Forest Service needs in terms of air assets? How the five and ten year contracts you’re looking at will affect us and benefit us and what we need to put into our budget to so that the Forest Service has the necessary equipment to address these wildfires?”
“We are studying the question about going to a 10-year contract, what the pros and cons are,” Chief Christiansen said.” We’re nearly complete with that report. It will be going through clearance in a matter of a few days and it will be getting to the committee here shortly. So we’d be glad to discuss more about air tankers. But we think we are really on the right track with our air tankers.”
In September an article on Fire Aviation about this current presolicitation included an opinion from the vendor of a Type 3 helicopter who requested to remain anonymous in order to avoid retribution from the agency. Here is an excerpt:
“This draft Request for Proposal is such a massive and violent change from what has been requested in previous contracts that most operators aren’t going to be able to handle it. We operate Type III helicopters and are now faced with 40+ pounds of equipment (costing over $60k per aircraft) to meet minimum requirements – things that we really don’t need like a Traffic Avoidance System (but the ADS-B they required last year isn’t good enough) and a loudspeaker (because yelling at the fire helps?). Oh, and don’t glance over the cockpit camera, which they want even on restricted category bucket ships. The cheapest camera we could find is $10,000. How’s about an STC for personal electronic devices, only available from one company, nobody else in the industry even knows what the hell the STC is or is for! But you better pay for it, USFS says!
“Once we get all of that figured out, turns out that the increase in performance specifications at 7,000′ / 30°C combined with the added equipment pretty much eliminates legacy ships from meeting performance requirements. They essentially want a Sky Crane to do a Jet Ranger’s job. A lot of the operators that will get pushed out because of this RFP do a lot of irrefutably safe work when fire season peaks, or when resource work is needed, with excellently maintained legacy platforms at great value to the taxpayers.”
Less than three months after Forest Service Chief Christiansen said the agency was going to release a report “shortly” about the feasibility of moving to 10-year contracts, they issued a presolicitation for helicopter contracts that guaranteed one year. (Fire Aviation has requested a copy of the report.)
In December, 2017 the US Forest Service cancelled a five-year EU contract it had issued the previous year for two CL-415 water scooping air tankers. So a one year contract with each additional option year at the discretion of the agency with unreliable congressional funding is not a concept that makes potential vendors feel all warm and fuzzy.
That year the FS also reduced the number of Type 1 helicopters on EU contract from 34 to 28 and cancelled a solicitation for up to seven large air tankers, citing a lack of funding.
In 2018 when the Forest Service began issuing one-year contracts for air tankers we wrote:
Few if any vendors can simply write a check to purchase and convert an air tanker, so they have to convince a lender to give them large sums of money usually even before they have a contract with the USFS. With this new one-year contract policy, obtaining those funds could be even more difficult.
Below is an excerpt from the Missoulian:
“They’re only offering a one-year contract,” said Ron Hooper, president of Missoula-based Neptune Aviation. “We can’t go to the bank with a one-year contract to finance airplanes. They just laugh at us.”
Even if a vendor received a guaranteed five-year contract it can be difficult to establish and implement a long-term business plan that would make sense to their banker and the solvency of the company.
These one-year firefighting aircraft contracts need to be converted to 10-year contracts, and the number of Type 1 helicopters must be restored to at least the 34 we had for years.
Abraham Fandrich, the Chief Pilot for the US Forest Service, retired last month. Before he landed a Forest Service plane for the last time as a full time USFS employee, he made a low pass over the Helena Regional Airport streaming smoke in a King Air 250, a tactic usually used for marking targets for air tankers.
After serving as a mechanic for the National Guard, he became a helicopter pilot in 1980 and transitioned to fixed wing aircraft about 25 years later.