Opinion: how to best utilize the aerial firefighting fleet

Tanker 892 single engine air tanker wildfire
Tanker 892, a SEAT, drops near the Aldrich Lookout Tower on the Sunflower Fire in Grant County, Oregon in 2014. Photo by Todd McKinley.

The following opinion article was sent to us by U.S. Forest Service retiree Bill Derr. He said it was written by him in consultation with personnel involved in aerial firefighting, retirees, aerial firefighting industry people, and some Forest Service employees both retired and presently working for the agency. Mr. Derr said “it reflects the collective views of knowledgeable people engaged in wildfire suppression”.


It’s time to finally get serious about how to best utilize our aerial firefighting fleet

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Aerial firefighting strategies and aircraft mobilization tactics must be revisited given the intensifying threat of US wildfires and mounting pressure to do so with limited additional funding. Existing models were built for a different time and have not kept pace with how much the wildfire fighting environment has changed for the worse. It is not lost on anyone who has been in the industry for more than a few years that getting on a fire faster, even with small amounts of water, water enhancer or retardant, significantly reduces the possibility of that fire start becoming national news. In the face of the 2020 wildfire season and the complications presented by managing it in a COVID‐19 operating environment, keeping small fires small, for as long as possible, will be a key success factor in limiting both the spread of the virus and number of large fires.

Fire agencies need to use the nation’s aerial firefighting assets in a manner that produces the best possible outcomes for our citizens and our ground‐based wildland fire fighters. The strategy is simple: lead the battle through the pre‐positioning of the numerous (~200) smaller, significantly less costly Special Operations assets such as wheeled SEATs, Fire Bosses and Type 3 helicopters and if the during the battle these assets look to be needing more support, send in the less numerous (~35) and more costly VLATs/LATs to ensure the fire is contained. This strategy would optimize the usage and effectiveness of the country’s entire aerial firefighting force and provide Incident Commanders the appropriate time required to request and receive the LATs and VLATs if needed.

Initial response and direct air strategies that utilize the large number of less costly smaller aircraft built to conduct rapid initial attack on the front lines – ideally in combination with smokejumpers, and often ahead of, ground fire suppression equipment and personnel – can better contain fires and keep them small. This provides the ground crews an advantage in putting out blazes more efficiently, helping to limit wildfire devastation and the ever‐increasing associated costs for fire suppression, and freeing up valuable funds for the federal and state restoration and forest management work that helps prevent catastrophic fires in the first place.

THE 2009 FLAME ACT – WE HAVE BEEN THINKING ABOUT THIS FOR SOME TIME – NOW WE NEED TO MAKE THE EFFORT TO LIVE UP TO THE GOALS SET FORTH YEARS AGO
Improving the safety and effectiveness of wildfire response is the highest priority set forth by the US Departments of Interior and Agriculture in the 2014 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy1 (National Strategy), commissioned by Congress as part of the 2009 FLAME act2. This strategic priority includes “enhancing wildfire response preparedness with an emphasis on both structural protection and wildfire prevention to maximize the effectiveness of initial response.” The second priority aims to restore our nation’s landscapes through vegetation and fuels management. General guidance in this area includes “designing and prioritizing fuel treatments; strategically placing fuel treatments; increasing use of wildland fire for meeting resource objectives; and continuing and expanding the use of all methods to improve the resiliency of our forests and rangelands.” The final priority involves “engaging homeowners and communities in creating fire adapted communities where populations and infrastructure can withstand fire without loss of property.” To move the needle toward achieving National Strategy goals, the way we wildfire response tactics must be reevaluated to improve effectiveness and rein in costs. By doing so, we can ensure that programs to restore and maintain US landscapes are positioned (and funded) to succeed.

A CHANGE IN THE AIR
The first pillar of the National Strategy—improving the safety and effectiveness of wildfire response—is more important than ever as blazes burn larger and dangerously hot over the course of a longer season. One area of wildfire response that is primed for increased effectiveness is the use of aerial firefighting.

For decades now, the use of firefighting aircraft has been central to wildfire response programs. However, as the decades have passed by, traditional aerial firefighting strategies have remained mostly unchanged despite the shifting fire environment and the introduction of new aircraft, technologies and tactics. To increase response effectiveness, it is time for these strategies to be revisited.

The yet to be published USFS Aerial Firefighting Usage and Effectiveness Study (AFUES), initiated in 2012, will likely produce a result that is already obvious to most wildland firefighters: the probability of succeeding in battling a wildfire and living to see another day is significantly increased when you start working a fire start within the first hour. The problem of that being the outcome of the study is that there aren’t enough LATs/VLATs and Type 1 and 2 helicopters in the currently contracted USFS fleet to ever achieve that goal and little or no additional funding to make it happen. These agencies need to find a way to do more with same amount of limited funding. What this paper proposes is a way to do so.

Fortunately, an entire fleet of smaller fixed‐wing and rotary assets do exist to achieve this goal. Our state and federal fire agencies, primarily driven by the USFS, need to rethink the integration of these smaller, easily and cost effectively distributed assets into their response to wildfire starts. A multimillion dollar study that has not been completed in well over 8 years is not needed for most fire fighters who have been in the industry over the last two to three decades. Let’s start demanding a change in how we use these costly assets. It will result in better outcomes for every citizen in a fire prone region (less devastation and healthcare impact) and significantly reduce the risk and danger posed to our wildland firefighting brothers and sisters that results from long drawn out campaign fires.

Aerial firefighting through initial response to wildfires
It is well known that aerial firefighting is most effective through initial attack on small wildfires3. During initial attack, small, prepositioned initial attack fixed wing aircraft and helicopters can arrive on a scene within minutes, carrying loads of water or retardant that can help contain a situation until ground crews arrive to put it out. If smokejumpers are available in the area, the probability of success increases substantially. Each time a small wildfire is suppressed during initial response, agencies prevent greater devastation and millions more in associated costs that come with large and very large fires4. In fact, a USDA Audit Report found that when success rate of USFS initial response dropped by 1.5% in 2007, it represented an estimated 150 more fires that escaped containment and cost the Forest Service an additional $300 million to $450 million to suppress5. By avoiding decreases like this and instead improving the success rate of initial attack, the USFS could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in savings that could be used to fund critical fuels management tactics like forest thinning and prescribed burns. The full benefits of reliable and successful initial attack are realized when small wildfires are quickly suppressed and the resulting budget savings are funneled into programs that help restore ecological balance to our forests and better protect against megafires for years and decades to come.

Additionally, there are public health benefits to extinguishing fires through initial attack. A lower amount of smoke is released into the air, which in past wildfire situations has affected the health of thousands of people in communities across the US. Fewer harmful carbons are emitted, which research shows can have a lasting impact on climate change—severe wildfire seasons such as 2015, 2017 and 2018 have the potential to release a decade’s worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere in just a single season6. The degradation of water quality is also reduced when a wildfire is suppressed quickly, as each large wildfire increases susceptibility of watersheds to flooding and erosion which can have short and long‐term impacts on water supplies, such as increased treatment costs, need for alternative supplies, and diminished reservoir capacity7. These public health benefits underscore the importance of the National Strategy’s first priority, “to maximize the effectiveness of initial response” so wildfires can be suppressed and extinguished while they’re still small.

More specifically regarding public health, the 2020 season is going to be an even greater challenge than any other previous season as a result of the COVID‐19 pandemic. Fire agencies will be focused on reducing the number and size of fire camps this coming season due to the potential of infection across a larger portion of a camp. They will also be trying to minimize the number of evacuations that result in citizens needing to shelter for protection in local gyms and auditoriums. To achieve these goals, fire agencies will need to provide as much aerial firefighting force as possible, as quickly as possible.8

However, the reality is that the current aerial firefighting models are not optimized to execute the swift, reliable initial response needed to control fires that are burning and spreading more quickly today due to climate change and unhealthy landscapes. Rather, firefighting aircraft are more often deployed when a fire has already escaped containment and grown into a larger, more expensive disaster. When this happens, typically large and very large air tankers (LATs and VLATs) are used to initiate an indirect attack. Over the course of the indirect attack, LATs and VLATs complete numerous drops of retardant to contain the blaze. Turnaround time between drops often exceeds one to two hours for LATs and VLATs due to the time‐intensive procedures required for loading high volumes of retardants. Turnaround time may also be impacted by basing requirements, as large aircraft must operate out of large airports with retardant loading infrastructure (only ~60 of those west of the Mississippi), as opposed to smaller, regional bases (1,000s of these) that are often closer to fire prone areas. As with all aircraft, turnaround time contributes to the overall length of a wildfire mission, which in turn increases aircraft operating costs. In some situations, incident managers have tried to ameliorate long turnaround times by “filling the gap” with an additional LAT or VLAT to help paint more lines around a fire. Doing so essentially doubles the cost of a suppression mission.

When a small fire does break initial containment efforts, LATs and VLATs play a critical role in suppression, but at a high cost. Significant acquisition and retrofitting costs, plus on‐going maintenance requirements, naturally limits the number of LATs and VLATs that can be made available. There just aren’t that many of these aircraft to meet the supply of fire starts. For example, for the 2020 season, the US Forest Service will have only 18 exclusive use (EU) LAT/VLAT contracts and 17 call‐when‐needed (CWN) contracts for aircraft of the same size9. With such a small number of large aircraft operating from a limited number of bases that have the extensive retardant loading infrastructure, LATs and VLATs cannot be as widely distributed and numerous as smaller, less expensive aircraft across a fire‐prone region. Given the broadening geographic areas requiring potential fire suppression, and the limited number of LATs and VLATs available, there is simply too much ground to cover to ensure a swift, reliable initial attack. This structural challenge for large aircraft, combined with higher operating costs, makes LATs and VLATs primarily, if not solely, suited for indirect attack on large fires, or as suggested in this document, supplemental back‐up to the aerial initial attack efforts. While this type of response will continue to have a highly effective and important role in fighting big blazes, public entities must bolster rapid initial attack capability in order to quickly respond to and contain fire starts in the WUI when they are still small. Otherwise, small wildfires will continue to become large public health disasters that require millions of dollars to suppress and cost the country billions of dollars in devastation and rebuilding.

A NEW PATH FORWARD
Most wildfires start as small, containable situations. But when a spark occurs in today’s shifting environment, a rapid, direct and reliable initial response is needed in order to avoid a large, multimillion‐ dollar disaster. By bolstering their initial attack capabilities with purpose‐built firefighting aircraft, fire agencies can knock down fires more quickly, keep them cooler and better support crews on the ground that are putting out the flames. If the same fire agencies could rely on smokejumpers as much as they used to decades ago, the initial attack combo of timely aerial initial attacks assets and supporting smokejumpers on the ground would have outstanding results. Given the large number of wheeled SEATs, Fire Bosses and Type 3 helicopters in the U.S., fire agencies should lead any fire response, regardless of who’s land it has started on, with these aircraft to slow and cool the fire until ground resources arrive. Through leading the initial attack with these aircraft, when a fire start does break the containment efforts of initial attack, these agencies can utilize the scarcer and costly LATs and VLATs to bolster the fight only when they’re needed. This approach makes common sense, fire sense and dollars and cents. Doing so helps divert the large wildfires that are predicted to increase in frequency over the coming years and decades. Key to the success of this model is using money saved from reduced suppression costs to fund forest health programs like forest thinning and prescribed burns that reduce the enormous “inventory” of fuels on the ground that require mitigation efforts.

Prioritize the use of rapid initial attack aircraft
During initial response to a wildfire start, every minute counts. Small, pre‐positioned initial attack aircraft are needed for their ability to quickly get off the ground, arrive at a scene and nimbly maneuver around fire’s frontline to drop continuous loads of water or retardant as soon as possible. These aircraft can quickly reload in between drops, returning to small, regional airports to reload, or scooping directly from a water source nearby the fire situation (Fire Bosses and helicopters). These capabilities combine to support a rapid, reliable initial response to fire starts and small wildfires. Only a handful of initial attack aircraft are in large enough number to provide the necessary capabilities across a broad enough swath of the fire prone landscape during the fire season. They are:

  • Helicopters. Smaller, typically Type 3 helicopters can take off and be en route to a fire in a matter of minutes, making them an effective complement to aerial firefighting arsenals. Helicopters have the advantage of dropping water, water enhancers or retardant based on the situation at hand and can reload from small water sources or staged tanks that can be positioned very close to a fire. The disadvantage of helicopters is load size. Oftentimes a Type 3 helicopter can only carry a bucket that holds 150 to 300 gallons. Even so, these helicopters when deployed in larger numbers can be effective initial responders to a wildfire. Best estimates put the number of these assets in the 100 or so range.
  • Single engine air tankers (SEATs). Like, Type 3 helicopters, SEATs can take off and be en route to a fire situation faster than larger aircraft, a critical capability for successful initial response. Based on the situation at hand, SEATs can carry loads of water, water enhancers or retardant to drop on hot spots and help control and cool the fire situation until ground crews can arrive. Wheeled SEATs carry loads of about 800 gallons which allow for “surgical” drops on a fire, enabling the aircraft to work closer and more safely with ground crews. Wheeled SEATs can operate out of smaller, regional air bases that are often closer to fires in the WUI, cutting down on turnaround time. Based on the historical number of wheeled SEATs that the BLM has contracted with over the years, there are roughly 60 to 75 of these aircraft outfitted to fight fire.
  • Fire Bosses. When equipped with amphibious floats, a wheeled SEAT becomes an 800‐gallon scooping air tanker. When near a water source, an aircraft like the Fire Boss can perform continuous scoops and drops on a fire for 3.5 hours straight – without needing to return to a base to reload during this time. This platform combines the best attributes of helicopters, wheeled SEATs and LATs/VLATs derived from its ability to be contracted cost effectively, be positioned close to fire‐prone areas for fast response and drop as much suppressant volume on a fire in a given hour as any LAT /VLAT. Given that most human settlement is near water, and at least two‐thirds of historical fires in the US have been within ten miles of a scooper‐accessible water source10, there is undeniable value to adding Fire Bosses to firefighting arsenals. There will be 19 Fire Bosses available for the 2020 wildfire season.

Smaller, less costly fixed‐wing and rotary assets enable a widely distributed basing strategy in anticipation of dispersed fire starts. SEATs, whether wheeled or on floats like on a Fire Boss, and Type 3 helicopters are much less expensive to contract and operate than LATs/VLATs and Type 1 and 2 helicopters, allowing departments to deploy more aircraft and create “nodes” of resources in fire prone areas. With more nodes of aircraft in more flexible and more fire prone locations, these assets can dramatically improve the speed, effectiveness and reliability of initial response and extended operations throughout a fire‐prone region. With almost 200 of these types of aircraft ready to go, why aren’t we using these aircraft as the Special Operations assets that they are and backing them up with the power and might of the 35 LATs/VLATs available?

IN SUMMARY
Climate change, expansion of the WUI and today’s unhealthy landscapes are combining to create costlier fires that are burning and spreading much more quickly than they did 20‐30 years ago. In the face of this new world order, public entities must bolster rapid and direct initial air attack capability by incorporating a network of numerous smaller, lower cost, initial‐attack aircraft into aerial firefighting arsenals. Doing so will prepare agencies, and the country, to rapidly respond to and contain fire situations in the WUI before small blazes escape and become multi‐acre, multi‐million‐dollar devastations. Only then can we return critical funds to forest management programs that reduce the fuels accumulating in our wildlands and restore the vitality of our nation’s forests.


1 Jewell, Sally, and Thomas J. Vilsack. The National Strategy ‐ The Final Phase in the Development of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. PDF. Washington D.C.: U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture, April 2014.

2 Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (2009) (enacted).

3 Aerial Firefighting Tutorial.” AHSAFA.org (web log). Accessed February 2018.

4 Keating, Edward G., Andrew R. Morral, Carter C. Price, Dulani Woods, Daniel M. Norton, Christina Panis, Evan Saltzman, and Ricardo Sanchez. “Air Attack Against Wildfires. Report. RAND Corporation.

5 H.R. Rep. No. 08601‐53‐SF (2009).

6 Struzik, Edward. Firestorm. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

7 Smith, Hugh G., Gary J. Sheridan, Patrick N.j. Lane, Petter Nyman, and Shane Haydon. “Wildfire effects on water quality in forest catchments: A review with implications for water supply.” Journal of Hydrology 396, no. 1‐2 (2011): 170‐92. Accessed March 14, 2018. doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2010.10.043.

8 Gabbert, Bill. “Fighting Wildfires During a Pandemic” Fire Aviation (blog), March 19, 2020. Accessed March 25, 2020. 

9 Gabbert, Bill. “Forest Service awards contracts for five exclusive use air tankers” Fire Aviation (blog), March 26, 2020. Accessed March 26, 2020.

10 Keating, Edward G., Andrew R. Morral, Carter C. Price, Dulani Woods, Daniel M. Norton, Christina Panis, Evan Saltzman, and Ricardo Sanchez. “Air Attack Against Wildfires. Report. RAND Corporation.

Forest Service awards contracts for five exclusive use air tankers

Next-Generation 3.0 contract

air Tanker 163 an RJ85
Aero Flite’s Tanker 163, an RJ85, at Rapid City December 2, 2017 while working the Legion Lake Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Today the U.S. Forest Service announced contract awards for five large exclusive (EU) use air tankers. Three companies received contracts — Erickson Aero Tanker for two tankers, Aero Flite for two, and Coulson for one.

The tankers operated by the companies include MD-87s by Erickson Aero Tanker and RJ85s by Aero Flite. Coulson flies C-130s and B737s but this contract is for Tanker 137, a B737. The estimated total value of the contracts are, Erickson Aero Tanker $70.5 M, Aero Flite $80.4 M, and Coulson $41.5 M.

The solicitation for the Next Generation 3.0 air tankers was first posted 494 days ago on November 19, 2018. There are approximately three seasons left for the six aircraft on the Next Gen 1.0 contract, so the Forest Service should begin today working on Next Gen 4.0.

These 5 large EU air tankers will be added to the existing fleet of 13 (see the chart below published March 11), to bring the total up to 18. Earlier the Forest Service said they would have “up to 18” on EU contract this year. There are 17 large air tankers left on call when needed (CWN) contracts that can be activated, but at hourly and daily rates much higher than those on EU. At the time of the CWN award in December some of those tankers only existed on paper.

Schedule large air tankers on USFS exclusive use contracts 2020
Schedule for large air tankers that are on USFS exclusive use contracts, updated March 11, 2020 by USFS.

Since 2013 the number of large air tankers on Forest Service EU contracts at the beginning of each fire season varied from 9 in 2013 to 21 in 2016 and 2017. From 2000 to 2002 there were 40 to 44.

Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019. Revised 2-24-2020. Fire Aviation.
air tankers Durango MD87
Erickson Aero Air’s T101 and T103, MD87s, at Durango, CO May 28, 2018. Photo by Dave Herdman.
coulson 737 air tanker dropping
Coulson 737 air tanker.

U.S. Air Force provides MAFFS training in Colombia, South America

MAFFS C-130 Columbian Air Force
File photo. A Colombian Air Force C-130 makes a demonstration drop with a MAFFS unit. March 29, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

U.S. Air Force personnel from four bases in the United States travelled to South America to work with the Colombian armed forces as part of a mobile training team from February 11 through March 11 at two air bases in Colombia.

The team was comprised of 15 air advisors from the 571st MSAS at Travis Air Force Base, California, and six total force instructors from three other U.S. Air Force units. The training covered a variety of areas of cooperation between the U.S. and Colombia. It aimed at supporting Colombia in their pursuit to counter transnational and transregional threat networksm aerial firefighting, and to enhance the capability of the Fuerza Aerea Colombiana, their air force also known as the FAC.

Additionally, the 571st MSAS team provided ground training to the Colombian air force on Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, or MAFFS, a system loaded into the back of a C-130 aircraft that drops fire retardant to aid in stopping the spread of wildfires.

The Columbian government purchased a MAFFS unit in 2017 from MAFFS Joint Venture, a private company in California.

MAFFS training Columbia
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Pantusa, 731st Airlift Squadron Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems instructor pilot from Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, demonstrates the effectiveness of fire retardant in combating forest fires to members from the Fuerza Aerea Colombiana in Columbia, March 4, 2020. Employing an aerial firefighting capability will help the FAC in combatting wild fires, both internally and internationally. The specialized training, provided by the U.S. Air Force Reserve Command personnel, was a stepping stone to future work with the FAC on further enhancing this capability. (Courtesy photo)

Aerial firefighting capability will help the FAC in combatting wildfires, both internally and internationally. The specialized training provided by the U.S. Air Force Reserve Command personnel was a stepping stone to future work with the FAC on further enhancing this capability.

“While a very effective fire-fighting tool, this specific mission set requires consistent practice,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Pantusa, 731st Airlift Squadron MAFFS instructor pilot from Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. “It is inherently a dangerous mission — flying low over mountainous terrain that is on fire. The FAC has a new MAFFS program that includes highly motivated and knowledgeable C-130 operators who are attempting to grow their MAFFS program.”

While training on the diverse capabilities of the C-130 was the main focus of the mission, the 571st MSAS air advisors also took the opportunity to support additional U.S. Southern Command lines of effort by continuing to develop interoperability between the U.S. and Colombia.

More photos from the delivery of the MAFFS unit in Colombia, March 29, 2017.

Response from a reader about the use of firefighting aircraft during a pandemic

air tanker 103 Thomas Fire drops California
Tanker 103, an MD-87, drops on the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, California December 13, 2017. USFS photo by Kari Greer.

We received the text below in an email from one of our regular readers, Bean, who gave us permission to use it here. He wrote in response to the article, “During a pandemic aircraft may need to be used on wildfires more aggressively”, when it first appeared on Wildfiretoday.com.


Well done!  In the military we would have classified what you are asking for as a “force multiplier”.

Since your article on the Foxton Fire in JEFFCO, CO the Elk Creek FD Chief shut down our wildfire module. One member of the team came down with a cough, fever, and headache after the first day of the fire. The Chief sent them all home to self isolate for two weeks instead of allowing a possible infection to spread to the rest of the department. So right now the good news is that we just had a heavy snowstorm. The bad news is that we [Elk Creek] have no wildfire module for two weeks. No word on the sick firefighter yet.

I realize you write about fire fighting but another issue causing concern is that most small rural districts, ours included, also run the local EMS and ambulance service and as a result, our firefighter paramedics and EMT’s are even more at risk of exposure to CV.

In the small districts up here we are already short of fire fighters [paid full time and volunteers] and it is the small districts that provide most of the IA capability in Colorado.  If we define IA using your Rx for controlling fire size, we need a maximum effort in minimum time. We need the one resource that is not available … more people. The impact of the CV is to further reduce our most scarce fire fighting resource and if the CV impact is significant, Colorado is in trouble later this year when it warms up and dries out. Air support can increase the effectiveness of our available people.

So that gets us to where your article comes in, if we can’t get more firefighters, we have to fight smarter not harder using our available firefighters.  Enough air support can make a significant impact on the efficiency of our available firefighters and can offset the shortage of firefighters. The only problem is that most of the fixed wing type 1 air resources aren’t really capable of immediate response and providing direct close air support to the ground attack on the fire. I submit that for the maximum effectiveness, in this situation that the air resources required to augment fast IA are probably rotary wing. They can operate closer and drop with higher accuracy in direct support of ground personnel with relative safety compared to Type-1 fixed wing and their reload-return cycle is much quicker especially for dippers. Of course we cannot know this for a fact since the US Forest Service AFUE study has been a year out for several years and evidence is anecdotal except for the excellent Australian study on air tanker effectiveness that underscores the requirement for air support and immediate IA.

CWN contracts are useless for rapid IA support so what seems to be required to offset the impact of CV on personnel availability at least in our neck of the woods is to focus on EU contracts for rotary wing support in significant numbers to provide immediate augmentation of IA personnel and fixed wing Type 1’s to back up the IA effort if indirect attack is required.

During a pandemic aircraft may need to be used on wildfires more aggressively

747 air tanker Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A 747 air tanker drops on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

This article was first published on Wildfire Today, March 19, 2020.


Fighting wildland fires as we have known it is likely to go through a transformation during the next 6 to 18 months. As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to reach into more segments of the daily human existence the way we suppress wildfires may have to be modified.

Obstacles to firefighting

At a White House briefing on March 16 the President and Dr. Anthony Fauci said people should not assemble in groups larger than 10 and recommended “Social distancing”–  spacing between individuals needs to be at least 6 feet. Being near any infected person, even if it is just one person, runs the risk that droplets expelled from their mouth or nose, or viruses on their face, hands, or clothing could be transferred to others. Without widespread testing, it is impossible to know if someone is infected without being symptomatic. The symptoms, if they occur at all, may not develop for days.

firefighters Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A hand crew of firefighters on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

Social distancing would be extremely difficult to maintain while traveling to or extinguishing a fire. Wildland firefighters are trained to never work alone, and are always in groups ranging from 2 on a small Type 6 engine, 20 on a hand crew, and hundreds or thousands while assigned to a large fire. On Tuesday multiple engine crews battled three fires that burned 50 acres near Foxton in Jefferson County, Colorado about 20 miles southwest of Denver. On March 6, 286 firefighters responded to a 20-acre fire in the Cleveland National Forest near Lakeland Village in southern California. In 2017 more than 8,500 firefighters were assigned to the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in southern California.

Time

This is not like dealing with climate change that over years and decades has slowly caused fires to grow larger. A rapidly growing pandemic that kills approximately 0.7 to 3.0 percent of those infected means we don’t have the luxury of time to come up with solutions. A new scientific report warns that without action by the government and individuals to slow the spread and suppress new cases, 2.2 million people in the United States could die.

The March 1 outlook for wildland fire potential predicted higher than average fire activity during March and April in the coastal areas of Central and Southern California.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE

Prevent fires

It is possible that with social isolation the number of human-caused ignitions will decrease. Or, will campfires in the woods increase when folks get cabin fever and have more time on their hands? Fire prevention efforts have to increase, with more public service announcements and prevention officers in the field.

Reduce the number of fires that escape initial attack

The fewer large fires we have that require hundreds or thousands of firefighters to work together, the safer firefighters will be from additional virus exposure. This would also reduce evacuations that can result in refugees assembling in large numbers. An infected person forced to leave their self-quarantine to fend around for housing is a danger to society.

How to keep fires from becoming large

There is no silver bullet that can guarantee a fire will not escape initial attack, but the most effective tactic is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

This means, if there is a report of a fire, don’t just send one unit out to verify unless you have a very good reason to suspect it is a false alarm.  Dispatch overwhelming force — engines, crews, helicopters, and air tankers. This is not inexpensive, but can save millions of dollars if it keeps a fire from growing large.

The need for more firefighting resources

Congress is considering a proposal to spend $1 trillion dollars on a stimulus package to combat the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a proposal obtained by NBC News. A trillion is a number that is nearly impossible for me to comprehend. It is a thousand billion. A billion is a thousand million.

If more firefighters were hired it could make it possible to have healthy forces in reserve when 20-person crews or 5-person engines have to be quarantined when one crew member tests positive for the virus or if they are exposed while fighting a fire. It could also enhance the ability to attack new fires with overwhelming force.

Since firefighters assembling in groups to suppress a fire can put them at risk of spreading COVID-19, we need to rethink our tactics. This could include making far greater use of aerial firefighting. It should become standard operating procedure to have multiple large air tankers and helicopters safely and quickly attacking a new fire from the air, far from any people on the ground infected with the virus.

firefighter Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A firefighter on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 25, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on federal exclusive use (EU) contracts. Last year and at the beginning of this year there are only 13. That is a ridiculous number even in a slow fire season like last year when 20 percent of the requests for large air tankers were unfilled. The number of acres burned in the lower 48 states in 2019 was the least since 2004.

There are so few large airtankers on EU contracts that dispatchers have to guess where fires will erupt and move the aircraft around, like whack-a-mole.

The U.S. Forest Service says they can have “up to” 18 large air tankers on EU contract, but that will only be possible if and when they finally make awards based on the Next-Generation 3.0 exclusive use air tanker solicitation that was first published November 19, 2018. There are an additional 17 large air tankers on call when needed (CWN) contracts that can be activated, but at hourly and daily rates much higher than those on EU.

If multiple large air tankers and helicopters could attack new fires within 20 to 30 minutes we would have fewer large fires.

Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Until that takes place and the aircraft are sitting on ramps at air tanker bases, all 17 of the large air tankers on call when needed contracts need to be activated this summer. Right now, only one large air tanker is working.

Several years ago the number of the largest helicopters on EU contracts, Type 1, were cut from 36 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50. Until that happens 22 CWN Type 1 helicopters should be activated this summer.

“Air tankers don’t put out fires”

We often say, “air tankers don’t put out fires”, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area. During these unprecedented circumstances, we may at times need to rely much more on aerial firefighting than in the past.

All firefighters need to be tested for the virus at regular intervals

If firefighting crews have to isolated and put on the sidelines because one member develops COVID-19 symptoms, it is likely that they had already been shedding the virus for days, possibly infecting others.

firefighters Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
Firefighters on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 27, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

The small town of Vò in northern Italy where the first COVID-19 death occurred in the country, has become a case study that demonstrates how scientists might neutralize the spread of the disease. On March 6 they began a program to test all 3,300 inhabitants of the town twice, including asymptomatic people. Those without symptoms that tested positive were isolated, as were those with symptoms of course, and since then there have been no new cases.

This lesson is being learned. San Miguel County in Colorado, the location of Telluride, will be the first county in the U.S. to test every resident.

If we expect to maintain wildland firefighting capability, every firefighter must be tested on a regular basis. This can greatly reduce the risk when they gather in large numbers to suppress a fire.

Other key members of the wildland firefighting community must also be tested in order to maintain the viability of the system. This would include pilots, aircraft mechanics, air tanker base crews, helitack crews, dispatchers, members of Incident Management Teams, and contractors that supply firefighting equipment and services, especially caterers.

Should we still manage “limited suppression” fires?

In the last 10 years we have seen more wildfires allowed to spread with only limited suppression. These fires can persist for months while they are being baby sat by firefighters. Yes, there are benefits to the natural resources to allow fire to run its natural course. Fewer personnel are used early in the fire, but the amount of time involved results in them being tied up for an extended period. And if a month or two into it, after it has grown large and has to be suppressed, then you will need a huge commitment of forces. If firefighting resources are extremely limited by the effects of the pandemic, the second and third order effects of this strategy need to be thoroughly examined by smart managers before they decide to not aggressively attack a new fire.

Area Command Teams activated

Three Area Command Teams  (ACT) have been activated in the United States to assist in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The delegation of authority directs them to coordinate with Federal, State, local, and Tribal officials to identify issues related to COVID-19 and wildland fire response. They will develop fire response plans for maintaining dispatching, initial attack, and extended attack capability. The ACTs will also develop procedures or protocols for mitigating exposure to COVID-19 during an incident, and for responding in areas with known exposure to COVID-19.

This is an important and necessary step. We are in uncharted territory, and no one has ever fought wildland fires under these conditions, at least in the United States.

Table top exercises or simulations

They may already exist, but if not, table top exercises could be very useful for Regional and National Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups to work through the steps of allocating firefighting resources that in a worst case scenario could become scarce on an unprecedented scale. Maybe a billionaire or video game designer will develop a computer-based simulation for this purpose.

Yes, this is a lot — 40 EU large air tankers, 50 EU Type 1 helicopters, initial attack with overwhelming force, and testing for everyone involved in firefighting.

We need to be in this for the long haul. No one knows for sure, but scientists are thinking that this new virus will ebb and flow. The spread may peak every few weeks and it may or may not slow in the summer, but will most likely peak again in the fall and winter well into 2021. There is no known cure and it will be at least 12 to 18 months before a vaccine is available.

But what is the alternative? If our firefighters are isolated, quarantined, or deceased, there could be a lot of smoke in the skies this year that will exacerbate respiratory diseases being suffered by many.

First flight of a CL-415EAF

CL-215s are being upgraded to the CL-415EAF “Enhanced Aerial Firefighter” configuration

CL-415EAF First Flight
First flight of a CL-415EAF March 10, 2020. Photo by Longview Aviation.

A Viking CL-415EAF took its inaugural flight in Abbotsford, British Columbia March 10. It is the first Canadair CL-215 to undergo the major modification to CL-415EAF “Enhanced Aerial Firefighter” configuration by Longview Aviation Services in collaboration with Cascade Aerospace. Cascade was awarded a contract to assist with the CL-415EAF modification program in 2018 that included carrying out the first aircraft modification using Viking-supplied conversion kits.

This initial CL-415EAF is the first of six amphibious air tankers ordered by launch customer Bridger Aerospace of Bozeman, Montana and is scheduled for delivery in April in advance of the start of the 2020 North American wildfire season.

The CL-415EAF modification program was announced in 2018 as a collaboration between the two subsidiaries of Longview Aviation Capital. In the program CL-215 airframes are converted to turbines using Viking-supplied conversion kits and all obsolete components are replaced. It features a new Collins Pro Line Fusion® integrated digital avionics suite, Pratt & Whitney PW123AF turbine engines, increased water tank capacity, and improvements to numerous aircraft systems.

The CL-415EAF utilizes a higher delivery 2-door water drop system combined with a zero-timed maintenance program and a “new aircraft” factory-supported warranty program.

CL-415EAF First Flight
First flight of a CL-415EAF March 10, 2020. Photo by Longview Aviation.

Results released for study of water enhancers used by firefighting aircraft

Five products were evaluated during a three-year period

CoE water enhancer study fire

Results have been released for a three-year study on the use and effectiveness of water enhancing products for Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs). It was conducted by Colorado’s Center of Excellence (CoE) for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, and the Bureau of Land Management from 2017 through 2019. It is titled, “Aerial Firefighting Field Operational Evaluation of Water Enhancers; Results and Recommendations.”

In addition to long term fire retardant (LTR) which is usually used in large and very large air tankers, other water enhancing products are often used by SEATs and sometimes helicopters, and occasionally by large air tankers. For example the air tankers from North America that worked in Chile in recent years used products other than LTR. The enhancers are also used in Australia in addition to LTR. SEATs often use retardant but some bases have switched to other products.

Data was collected for the study through 95 evaluations of the performance of the water enhancers by aerial supervision personnel, pilots, ground firefighters, a mixer-loader, and by two dedicated field observers hired for that purpose during the final year of the project.

The CoE evaluated the following water enhancers:

  • GelTech Solutions FireIce 561® (uncolored)
  • FireIce HVO-F® (orange colorant)
  • FireIce HVB-Fx®
  • G5 BioSolutions BlazeTamer 380®
  • Thermo Technologies Thermo-Gel 200®

(In the interest of full disclosure BlazeTamer is a supporter of Fire Aviation.)

The full 63-page report can be downloaded. Here are some of the recommendations:


Increase the Use of Water Enhancers (Especially During Initial Attack)

Aircraft are used in a variety of wildfire management roles in many parts of the world. They can be used to deliver suppressants to sections of the fire edge that are difficult to access on the ground and can reduce the intensity and spread rates to allow ground crews to work along the fire edge. This is critical during the initial attack of wildfires in remote locations.

When used properly, specifically in direct attack on the fire with ground resources present, the CoE’s data showed that there is a favorable reduction in flame heights with the use of water enhancers as opposed to LTR, especially in light fuels. Observers shared a number of comments that suggest that they are quite effective at reducing fire behavior.

  • Water enhancers are much more effective when used in direct attack than water or foam and much less expensive than retardant.
  • The choice of tactics may also depend on the availability of suitable aircraft, payload, and airbase facilities for each option.
  • Water and foam all dry at a faster rate than do water enhancers; however, ground follow-up is critical to the success of a water enhancer line “holding.” This is even more important on hot and windy days when spread rates and the probability of ignition are both high, as holding times under these conditions will be 30 minutes or less.
  • Holding time was difficult to quantify because many of the drops were not observed at all or did not last long enough to capture data.
  • The CoE’s study showed that holding times for the products that were evaluated range from 20 minutes to 2 hours. Because the water enhancers are only effective as long as they retain water, fire managers must realize that the use of these products should be limited to direct attack applications.

Consider Use of Water Enhancers in Helicopters

Use of water enhancers in helicopters should also be considered on large fires to directly support crews in controlling hot spots and reducing the amount of time required to control critical sections of fireline.

Some additional benefits of water enhancer use in helicopters may include:

  • Fireline production per drop when using water enhancers is increased significantly due to the creation of a dense, narrow drop pattern versus the pattern created when dropping untreated water.
  • Retardant is expensive and inefficient when used for direct attack.  Retardant increases the weight of water from 8.3 lb per gallon to about 9.1 lb per gallon.
  • Only 85% of retardant (i.e., the water content) is effective when used for direct attack; 15% is the chemicals and coloring agent used for indirect attack.
  • Retardant is more expensive. For example, BlazeTamer 380 costs $0.83 per gallon as compared to $2.50 per gallon for Phos Chek 259-F LTR.
  • Ease of set-up and breakdown of water enhancer mixing systems as compared to mobile retardant bases allows for fast movement around a fire rather than having to stay in one location. No heavy equipment is needed.

Use Water Enhancers with Prompt Ground Resource Follow-Up

When enhancers are used properly for direct attack and the number of aircraft is sufficient, they may be capable of fully extinguishing the fire with little to no ground support. The CoE recommends water enhancer use for situations where follow-up from the ground can be provided promptly (typically within 1 hour).

For an extended attack incident, particularly when the ground support is several hours away and the need is to hold or slow the spread until they can catch up, retardant is likely the best tool. There were numerous observations made during this study in which the enhancers were very effective when supported by ground resources. Ground crews play an essential role during fire suppression, with water enhancer technology offering a method to increase their suppression capacity. Aerial suppression provides a temporary holding role, rather than extinguishing fires. Follow-up by ground crews before the water enhancers dry out or fire burns through the drop zone is essential.

In 2018, the CoE received observations from several initial attack fires with high rates of spread and intensity where ground resources were delayed in supporting the drops in a timely manner, resulting in drops being burned around or spotted over.


There were other recommendations about training, using an aircraft with an electro-optical/infrared sensor to evaluate the effectiveness of the drop, and processes to ensure quality control of the water enhancer mixture.

Full page newspaper ads recommend converting C-5M aircraft into firefighting air tankers

The aircraft would supposedly carry up to 60,000 gallons after structural modifications were made

C-5 Galaxy.
C-5 Galaxy. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Charlie Miller, Oct. 3, 2005..

A former aircraft engineer is taking out full page newspaper advertisements proposing that C-5M aircraft be converted into firefighting air tankers operated by the Air Force. If you live in the Fresno, California area you may have seen the ad in the March 8 edition of the Fresno Bee. I called the person whose name appears on the ad, Joseph C. Coomer, and asked why he placed the ad.

“I was up against a brick wall and nobody wants to publish this stuff,” he said. “The Representatives already know everything and I can’t get through to anybody and it was just a dead end. I had to do this or nothing and I’ve put three years of work on this thing and I didn’t want to see it die. It’s too important.”

The ad will also appear March 15 in the Modesto Bee and the Sacramento Bee. Mr. Coomer said he is spending about $10,000 for the ads.

He said he does not have any firefighting experience but formerly worked for Boeing as a Weight Engineer on the 707, 737, and Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS).

He explained that the latest version of the C-5, which is the C-5M, has been outfitted with more powerful engines and has the ability to carry up to 60,000 gallons of water if substantial structural modifications are made. With fewer modifications it could carry 50,000 gallons, he said.

Single engine air tankers carry around 750 gallons or less, large air tankers 3,000 to 4,000 gallons, while very large air tankers can hold 9,000 to 19,000 gallons. Helicopters have a capacity of 250 to 3,000 gallons.

“They’ve got 52 [C-5Ms] in inventory and I think what’s going to evolve out of this, all 52 will be turned into the tankers and it will be a world firefighting unit for forest fires,” said Mr. Coomer. “That’s what I anticipate. Because Australia will probably want them and Canada will want them and they get spread out and the European Union will probably want some. One of the key things I come up with is a dumping system that can dump that much water, and that’s in three seconds because the aircraft is traveling at almost 200 feet per second.”

I asked if he was saying that the government should take over the operation of air tankers, which would put the private contractors out of business.

“Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.” he said. “You have the Forest Service and I’m taking responsibility over the aircraft away from the Forest Service and assign it to the Air Force. Yeah. And the tankers would be stationed at Travis Air Force Base [near Sacramento, CA.] … It’s almost in the center of the state. Up to 15 aircraft stationed at Travis, 15 C5s converted to tankers that would cover all of California, all of Colorado, and part of Oregon just from that base because the aircraft flies at 400 miles per hour. And when a fire breaks the locals won’t have to respond, they just wait for the aircraft — four, five, six, seven, whatever it is, to that site. And in one pass they put the fire out, one pass.”

I said to Mr. Coomer, “Aircraft don’t put out fires. Under ideal conditions they can slow them down long enough for firefighters—.”

“No, no, no, no, no, no,” he interrupted. “They will put the fire out from the air. They are soaking it with more than one inch of water. My calculations show that on a 10-acre fire, if you put five of those aircraft with 60,000 gallons each, will put one-inch of water on the ground.”

Retardant delivery systems used today have adjustable flow rates that produce variable coverage levels on the ground, measured in gallons per 100 square feet. The coverage levels defined by the U.S. Forest Service and used by contracted air tankers range from 1 to 10. For example, the maximum coverage level of 10 would be 10 gallons per 100 square feet. Water one inch deep would be coverage level 62, according to my calculations.

When asked how much it would cost to convert a C-5M into an air tanker, Mr. Coomer said, “I have no idea. … I don’t know, $3 million or $10 million to convert an aircraft. I don’t know that. I know it’d be quite a bit.”

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