Flight crews in Alaska having trouble finding lodging

Single engine air tankers at Ladd Field at Fort Wainwright
Single engine air tankers at Ladd Field at Fort Wainwright, AK June 22, 2022. AGray/BLM Alaska Fire Service.

The fire season in Alaska is on track to become one of the busiest on record. The number of acres burned so far this year, 1.4 million, is already more than the 30-year average of the total burned each year, 1.2 million.

The Alaska Division of Forestry (DOF) published an article on their AK Fire Info page saying that with the increased fire activity and the additional firefighting aircraft being used in the state they were having trouble finding lodging near airports for all of the pilots and their flight crews. Facilities were available in other locations throughout the state but the long travel distances between lodging and airports was decreasing flight time, and limiting how much the pilots could assist the firefighters on the ground.

The DOF wrote that in the Mat-Su area they were in need of help and were looking for services similar to a hotel or vacation rental. They were hoping to find hotel rooms, vacation rentals by owner, or bed and breakfasts for the pilots, air crews and aviation mechanics.

Later that same day they reported that the response was overwhelming and secured rooms for all of their fire personnel. “We couldn’t do this without you”, they wrote. “Thank you Alaska for making a difference!”

San Diego County’s Helicopter 10 assists firefighters in Carlsbad

A drone pilot posted aerial video illegally shot of the fire while a helicopter was dropping water

San Diego County Helicopter 10 (N449RC) fire Carlsbad
A San Diego County Bell 205, (N449RC) drops on a fire in Carlsbad, CA June 25, 2022. Photo by Ryan Grothe.

Ryan Grothe got some photos of one of the San Diego County Sheriff Department’s Bell 205 helicopters, H- 10 (N449RC), as it assisted firefighters battling a 10-acre fire in the Buena Vista Lagoon June 25, 2022 near Carlsbad, California between Carlsbad Blvd. and Interstate 5.

Evacuations were in effect for a while but no structures were damaged.

The police arrested and charged David Prosser, a 59-year-old man from Carlsbad, with arson and resisting arrest.

San Diego County Helicopter 10 (N449RC)
San Diego County Helicopter 10 (N449RC) at a fire near Carlsbad Blvd. June 25, 2022. Photo by Ryan Grothe.

A drone was illegally flying near the fire

Within hours after the spread of the fire was stopped, a drone video with aerial footage of the incident was posted on YouTube by New Wave Aerial. The video includes a very clear shot of Helicopter 10 flying  toward the drone at about the same altitude then banking to the left as it maneuvered prior to dropping a load of water on the fire. It is difficult to tell how close the two aircraft were without knowing what type of lens the drone was using, but they may have been just a few hundred feet apart.

New Wave Aerial illegal drone footage fire
Still image from video posted by New Wave Video shot near the fire in Carlsbad, CA June 25, 2022. The helicopter, seen on the right, had just banked to its left after flying toward the drone.

It is very dangerous to fly a drone over a fire at which helicopters or fixed wing aircraft are operating. A collision could impact the windscreen or damage the engine, props, rotors, or flight control surfaces causing a crash. If a drone is seen near a fire the standard operating procedure is to remove all aircraft from the fire area until it is confirmed that the drone has left the scene. In other words, it interferes with firefighting efforts.

Sergeant G. Lanning of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Astrea helicopter division told Fire Aviation that they were not aware that the drone was at the fire. If it had been spotted, it would have shut down the aviation operation at the fire, he said.

Calls to the FAA and New Wave Video were not immediately returned.

The rules

The FAA often implements Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) around wildfires to protect aircraft that are involved in the firefighting operation. All aircraft, including drones, are prohibited from flying in the restricted area unless they’re operated by an agency that’s involved in the firefighting operation. Even if a TFR is not in place, drone pilots should avoid flying near wildfires. It’s a federal crime to interfere with firefighting aircraft regardless of whether restrictions are established, and violators can face stiff penalties.

Fire Traffic Area

It is common on a fire whether or not a TFR is in force, to establish a Fire Traffic Area (FTA) over a fire to provide a standardized initial attack airspace structure and protocol to enhance traffic separation over wildfires. An aircraft should NOT enter the FTA until it receives a clearance. The standard FTA utilizes a minimum 5 nautical mile radius from the incident, although a radius greater than 5 miles may be utilized if needed by the incident.

Penalties

It’s a federal crime punishable by up to 12 months in prison to interfere with firefighting efforts on public lands. Additionally, Congress has authorized the FAA to impose a civil penalty of up to $20,000 against any drone pilot who interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response operations. The FAA treats these violations seriously, and will immediately consider swift enforcement action for these offenses.

According to the US Forest Service, in 2019 at least 20 documented instances of unauthorized drone flights over or near wildfires in seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Minnesota) resulted in aerial firefighting operations being temporarily shut down nine times. There is no centralized national mechanism to report unauthorized UAS flights over wildfires, so these are only the incidents that wildfire management agencies have become aware of, there are likely more that are not known about.

Suspending air operations could decrease the effectiveness of wildfire suppression operations, allowing wildfires to grow larger, and in some cases, unduly threaten lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources. The effects of lost aircraft time could be compounded by flames moving into untreated terrain.

drone fires

 

Map, fire in Carlsbad, CA June 25, 2022
Map, fire in Carlsbad, CA June 25, 2022.

Pilot killed in Alaska helicopter crash

From the Alaska Division of Forestry, June 27, 2022:

It is with sad and heavy hearts that we share the news that a pilot supporting the Clear Fire outside Anderson, AK, died in a helicopter crash. The pilot and sole occupant was Douglas Ritchie, 56, of Wasilla, AK. Wildland firefighters and aviators are a close community and are in support of the family, friends, and co-workers during this tragic time.

The crash occurred Sunday evening, June 26, 2022, while landing at the Anderson Airport’s helipad near milepost 280 of the Parks Highway. The Division of Forestry & Fire Protection (DOF) had contracted the 1960 Bell 204B “Huey” helicopter operated by Northern Pioneer Helicopters. The division is assisting the Alaska State Troopers and National Transportation Safety Board who are conducting an investigation.

We send our sincere condolences to the family, friends, and coworkers of Mr. Ritchie.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.

Q400 air tanker spotted dropping on a fire at Anchorage, Alaska

Conair expects to replace their L-188’s and CV-580’s with Q-400s

 Q400 air tanker drops Elmore Fire Anchorage, Alaska
A Q400 air tanker, Tanker 540, drops on the Elmore Fire near Anchorage, Alaska June 23, 2022. Mike McMillan/ AK DOF.

Firefighters in Alaska were able to stop the spread of the Elmore Fire on the east side of Anchorage Thursday at 13 acres before it spread into structures. It was reported at 5 p.m. in the Campbell Track area near the intersection of Dowling and Elmore Roads.

helicopter drops on the Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK
Alaska Dept. of Forestry helicopter drops on the Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK June 23, 2022. Mike McMillan-Alaska DOF.

The firefighters were assisted by one DOF helicopter and two fixed wing air tankers operated by Conair, a Q400 and a Convair 580. The Q400, Tanker 540, is seen above at the top of the article.

Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK June 23, 2022
Elmore Fire, Anchorage, AK June 23, 2022. Brent Goodrum-Alaska Div. or Forestry

The DOF has a contract with Conair to supply two Convair 580 air tankers, but the company has the option to substitute one of their Q400 tankers for a 580 at the same price. One of the tankers is usually based at Palmer and the other at Fairbanks.

In 2021 Conair purchased 11 Q400 aircraft from Flybe Airlines. The first one was delivered at Conair facilities in Abbotsford, British Columbia, February 21, 2021. After being converted to air tankers, called A400ATs (Air Tanker), they will eventually replace the L-188’s and CV-580’s currently operated by Conair. Showcasing a Q400 in Alaska can increase the familiarity of the tanker among Conair’s potential clients.

Conair-Flybe air tanker
One of the Q400’s purchased by Conair being tested with its new retardant delivery system, while still wearing Flybe livery. C-FFQG is the new registration. Photo by Kyle Clarkson.

The repurposed Q400s are capable of holding up to 2,640 gallons of retardant. The CV-580s were produced between 1947 and 1954 and can carry up to 2,100 gallons. The Q400 cruises about 50 mph faster than a CV-580.

Before purchasing the 11 Q400’s from Flybe, Conair had two A400ATs operational within their fleet that were used in 2021 for the first time in the North American fire season, including Alaska. They also had one under contract in Australia during the 2020-2021 bushfire season.

Q400 air tanker
Tanker 74, a Conair Q400AT. Photo by Alexandre Dubath.

In 2017 the Conair Group secured a deal to sell six Q400MR (Multi-Role) air tankers to France’s Securite Civile (Department of Civil Defense and Emergency Preparedness). These were new aircraft that Conair purchased from Bombardier which can be reconfigured in a few hours to carry passengers, hence the Multi-Role designation. The new aircraft are replacing France’s old S-2 air tankers.

More photos of firefighting air tankers at Sierra Vista Airport in Arizona

Air tanker 169, an RJ-85, at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport
Air tanker 169, an RJ-85, at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport while working the Contreras Fire, June 16, 2022. Photo by Ned Harris.

These photos of aircraft that were working on the Contreras Fire were taken by Ned Harris June 16, 2022 at the Sierra Vista Municipal Airport, a joint-use civil-military airport which shares facilities with Libby Army Airfield on Fort Huachuca in Southern Arizona.

We posted more of Ned’s photos yesterday, June 24, 2022. Thank you Ned!

Air tanker 131, a C-130, at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport
Air tanker 131, a C-130, at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport while working the Contreras Fire, June 16, 2022. Photo by Ned Harris.

Tankers 105 & 107, MD-87s, at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport
Tankers 105 & 107, MD-87s, at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport while working the Contreras Fire, June 16, 2022. Photo by Ned Harris.

Fire Traffic Area, June 24, 2022

Tanker 71 drops on a fire
Tanker 71 drops on a fire near El Cajon, CA May 13, 2022. Ryan Grothe.

Two weeks ago we started an occasional weekend feature called Fire Traffic Area. The posts serve as the beginning of an open thread where readers can leave comments about issues not yet covered — or maybe they have been covered. This is literally an off-topic thread. What needs to be pointed out, asked, or discussed within the fire aviation community? You have the floor.

The usual rules about commenting apply. And remember, no personal attacks or politics, please.

Photos of firefighting aircraft at Sierra Vista Airport in Arizona

While working on the Contreras Fire

Helicopter 9AC, an Erickson Air-Crane at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport
Helicopter 9AC, an Erickson Air-Crane at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport while working the Contreras Fire, June 16, 2022. Photo by Ned Harris.

These photos of aircraft that were working on the Contreras Fire were taken by Ned Harris June 16, 2022 at the Sierra Vista Municipal Airport, a joint-use civil-military airport which shares facilities with Libby Army Airfield on Fort Huachuca in Southern Arizona.

Contreras Fire 3-D map, north end, June 18, 2022
Contreras Fire 3-D map, north end, June 18, 2022.

The lightning-caused fire started June 11, 2022 and burned more than 29,000 acres. It threatened the 20+ observatories at Kitt Peak National Observatory, destroying a dormitory and three other structures unrelated to the science being conducted at the facility. As this is written June 24, evacuations are still in effect at the observatories. The early analysis is that the structures housing the telescopes did not receive any significant damage, but the effects, if any, on the optical systems will be assessed in the coming weeks.

We will post more of Ned’s photos tomorrow, June 25. Thank you Ned!

Air tanker 131, a C-130, takes off at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport
Air tanker 131, a C-130, takes off at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport while working the Contreras Fire, June 16, 2022. Photo by Ned Harris

Air tanker 02, a BAe-146, takes off at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport
Air tanker 02, a BAe-146, takes off at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport while working the Contreras Fire, June 16, 2022. Photo by Ned Harris.

Tanker 107, an MD-87, at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport
Tanker 107, an MD-87, at Sierra Vista Municipal Airport while working the Contreras Fire, June 16, 2022. Photo by Ned Harris.

Utah contracts for two Type 1 helicopters

Exclusive use for 90 days

Croman S-61 dropping water
File photo of a Croman S-61 dropping water during a demonstration in Sacramento in 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands has contracted with Croman Corporation to add two Type 1 helicopters to the state’s wildfire suppression resources.

This is the first time Utah has had an exclusive use contract for Type 1 helicopters.

“This is a greatly needed addition to our firefighting toolbox here in Utah,” said Mike Melton, the division’s aviation officer. “Along with the assets provided by our federal partners, these helicopters will improve our initial attack and large fire support capabilities.”

The exclusive use contract will be for up to five years, with each aircraft under contract for 90 days each year during the period from June 1 until the end of September. Both SH-3H (S-61) aircraft will be available to respond to wildfires in July and August.

This year the first aircraft became available for state use on June 15.

One of the helicopters will carry water in an external bucket, and the other will have a fixed tank with a capacity of approximately 800 gallons.

The first helicopter to come online will be stationed out of the Cedar City Air Center, with the second one’s location to be determined later when it becomes available.

Along with the aircraft, three seasonal helicopter managers have been hired who have federal agency experience managing this type of aircraft.

The helicopters will be dispatched out of the interagency fire centers throughout the state. They will also be available for use by the Forest Service, BLM, and other federal land management agencies within the state.

Croman tank
Croman S-61 with modified tank for dropping small bags of water during a demonstration in Sacramento in 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.