U.S. Navy helicopters assist with the fires in southern California

MH-60S Seahawk
An MH-60S Seahawk with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 3 lifts off from Camp Pendleton May 15 to assist the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. (U.S. Navy/MC1 Joan E. Jennings)

A total of 19 military helicopters are providing fire suppression support to firefighters in southern California, including eight Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters, seven CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters and four UH-1Y Huey helicopters.

A report from the military:


“SAN DIEGO – Six flight crews from the “Merlins” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 3 provided firefighting support to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) in response to wildfires throughout San Diego County May 15.

At the request of CAL FIRE, the six specially-equipped MH-60S Seahawks are supporting firefighting efforts in the vicinity of Camp Pendleton, Calif. by conducting aerial water drops.

“The critical part of our role is supporting CAL FIRE to help save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate great property damage,” said Lt. Cmdr. Todd Stansfield, Third Fleet’s Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) lead. “We have Navy personnel and their families that live and work in the areas of San Diego threatened by the fires. Our efforts support both our people and the communities we live in.”

In August 2011, U.S. Third Fleet, Naval Air Forces Pacific and Navy Region Southwest entered into a memorandum of understanding with CALFIRE. Under the agreement, naval units provide helicopters when notified by CALFIRE of weather conditions favorable to wildfires.

Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Wing Pacific prepares ready, trained and certified resources to combat wildfires and crews conduct semi-annual training with CAL FIRE to ensure an immediate response capability in support of local authorities for emergency events. The assigned crews are capable of being airborne within four hours of receiving a request for assistance to combat fires.”

Colorado’s plan for aerial firefighting resources for 2014

Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control has provided a few more details about their aerial firefighting resources for this year. According to their 2014 Wildfire Preparedness Plan, dated April 24, 2014:

  • They will “procure and operate two fixed-wing multi-mission aircraft”, in order to provide an incident assessment for every fire within 60 minutes of the report or detection.
  • They will “procure and operate four multi-mission rotor-wing aircraft”. The helicopters will be able to transport helitack crews and carry water or retardant.
  • The state will increase the number of contracted Single Engine Air Tankers from two to four.

The term “procure” is vague, and could mean they will either purchase or contract for the use of the aircraft. Previous information led us to believe they would purchase the two fixed wing multi-mission aircraft and contract for the four helicopters.

[UPDATE, May 15, 2014: One of our loyal readers, Bean, talked to with Paul Cooke, director of the Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control, at a meeting recently, and Director Cooke confirmed that they expect to purchase the two fixed wing multi-mission aircraft and contract for the four helicopters and the SEATs.]

On May 12 Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed the legislation recently passed by the House and the Senate that authorizes the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) to acquire a fleet of helicopters and air tankers to fight wildfires. 

The complete text from the section of the 2014 Wildfire Preparedness Plan that covers aerial firefighting is below.


“Aerial Firefighting Resources

DFPC will develop and manage the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) that will provide for availability of appropriate aerial firefighting equipment and personnel at times of both high and fire risk to respond to a wildfire.

The 2014 plan for CFAC aerial firefighting resources will be based on wildfire risk and need, as well as available funding, and may include any number of potential arrangements. To the degree practicable and possible, the minimum deployment of CFAC aerial firefighting resources will be:

Multi-Mission Fixed-Wing Aircraft – In order achieve the goal of generating an incident assessment for every fire within 60 minutes of report or detection of a wildfire Colorado should procure and operate two fixed-wing multi-mission aircraft.

These aircraft should be equipped with modern sensing, processing, and communication systems to allow for the gathering and dissemination of real-time wildfire information. The multi-mission aircraft should be integrated into the state’s wildfire information management system to allow all data to be immediately available to wildfire managers across the state.

Rotor-Wing Multi-Mission Aircraft – In order achieve the goal of providing the appropriate aviation suppression resources to every fire within 60 minutes of the request Colorado should procure and operate four multi-mission rotor-wing aircraft.

These aircraft should be capable of operating in Colorado’s high altitude and hot temperature environments. The rotor-wing aircraft should be capable of delivering wildfire suppression personnel (helitack crews) to remote locations to facilitate initial attack missions. The rotor-wing aircraft should also be able to carry water or retardant to remote locations in order to support ground-based suppression teams.

Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) – In order achieve the goal of providing the appropriate aviation suppression resources to every fire within 60 minutes of the request and to increase the effectiveness of the SEAT program, it is proposed that Colorado increase the exclusive-use SEAT contract to four aircraft in 2014.

For the past several years, Colorado procured SEATs on an annual exclusive-use contract basis during the wildland fire season. Typically, the contract has been for two SEATs with an option for a third if needed. SEATs are very effective in lighter fuel types such as grass and brush and are most effective during initial attack operations if used as a quick response resource. The efficiency and effectiveness of SEATs is increased if they are located in close proximity to the incident and integrated with ground resources as a support tool.

DFPC will also ensure the maintenance of process for ordering and dispatching aerial firefighting equipment and personnel that is consistent with, and supportive of, the statewide mobilization plan prepared pursuant to Section 24-33.5-705.4, C.R.S. DFPC will provide the technical assistance and program management that identifies local, county, and state resources; their qualification to national standards; and their listing in interagency zone dispatch centers and in the Colorado Statewide Resource Mobilization System.

Principal funding for CFAC will be from the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps Fund created in Section 24-33.5-1228 (3) (a), C.R.S. The estimated total program costs for 2014 are $19,670,000.”
Thanks and a hat tip go out to Bean.

Colorado Governor to sign aerial firefighting bill

Colorado Firefighting Air CorpsOn May 12 Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper will sign the legislation recently passed by the House and the Senate that authorizes the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) to acquire a fleet of helicopters and air tankers to fight wildfires. 

The Governor will host a press conference at 11 a.m. at the Centennial Airport where he will sign the bill and give his annual wildfire briefing.

Colorado Senate Bill 14-164 appropriates $19.67 million and specifies that the CFAC purchase, lease, or contract for the use and operation of up to three helicopters in 2014. Beginning in 2015 and beyond the bill authorizes up to four air tankers.

The first version of the bill required certain specifications for the aircraft, including that the helicopters be able to carry 18 passengers and be capable of rappelling firefighters. The air tankers would have been outfitted for dropping retardant at night, something that has never been done on a regular basis.

The bill that passed both the House and the Senate provides maximum numbers of aircraft, but leaves everything else up to the CFAC. The bill requires that the agency adhere as nearly as possible to the recommendations spelled out in a report they released on March 28, titled “Special report: Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, report to the Governor and General Assembly on Strategies to enhance the state’s aerial firefighting capabilities”.

firefighting aircraft bill passed by both houses in Colorado

The legislation also creates a “center of excellence for advanced technology aerial firefighting”, to…:

  • Serve as a laboratory to evaluate the “three fundamental contributing factors to successful aerial firefighting: effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability”.
  • Conduct research to evaluate new technology in a variety of settings, such as initial attack, night operations, and operations in wildland-urban interface areas.
  • Produce data and documentation on science and technology relevant to aerial firefighting.

The press conference will be held at the Centennial Airport, Denver jetCenter, Hangar A, 7625 South Peoria Circle, Englewood, Colorado 80112.

If any FireAviation readers attend the event do us a favor and send us some photos.

Rotor Magazine writes about fighting fire with helicopters

Rotor Magazine’s current issue, Spring 2014, has a five-page article about the use of helicopters on wildfires. It is apparently written for the pilot with little knowledge about what helicopters do on a fire. You can view the issue online, and if you click the “+” at bottom-right, the text will continue to enlarge to the point where you can read it — then you will have to drag the text around as you scan the article.

They used one of my photos that I submitted for their photo contest. It did not win, but they liked it enough to use it in their magazine.

Rotor Magazine, Gabbert's photo
Rotor Magazine, Spring 2014, page 36.

I took the photo June 29, 2012 a few hours after the White Draw Fire started northeast of Edgemont, South Dakota.  It was taken around sunset, in low light with smoke partially blocking the sun. As I panned to follow the helicopter I used a slow shutter speed of 1/40 sec., ISO of 320, and aperture of f/4. The result was a blurred background, and the helicopter is not extremely sharp either — probably the reasons the image did not win a prize in the contest.

You can see a larger version of the photo at Wildfire Today. Two days after the photo was taken MAFFS 7 crashed on the fire, killing four crewmembers and injuring two.

I did not see any large air tankers on the fire on the first day, but there was one Single Engine Air Tanker, plus two Type 3 Helicopters (one from the San Bernardino National Forest in California) and a National Guard Blackhawk. Sometimes I wonder if a more aggressive initial attack with overwhelming force from both the air and the ground would have made a difference, perhaps saving four lives two days later.

Video: firefighting helicopters in Australia

Martin Greenwood, a volunteer firefighter with the Australian Capital Territory Rural Fire Service in Australia sent us the video above that he put together of firefighting helicopters down under.

Another video he made that features mostly ground-based firefighting is at Wildfire Today.

Thanks Martin!

Video from California National Guard aerial firefighting training

This “B roll” footage is from the April 5th, 2014 California National Guard and Cal Fire Joint training exercise at the Cal Fire Training Academy in Ione, California. It includes shots of helicopter takeoff and landings, air crew members, aircraft refueling, helicopter controls, and California National Guard personnel working with civilian firefighting personnel from CAL FIRE.

Comparisons of proposals for Colorado aerial resources

Recently there have been two proposals for enhancing the aerial firefighting capability in the state of Colorado. A bill has been introduced with very specific requirements for aircraft, and the new but unfunded state agency, Colorado Firefighting Air Corp (CFAC), issued a report with different recommendations.

On March 21 two state senators, Morgan Carroll and Steve King, introduced Senate Bill 164 that would authorize the CFAC to acquire helicopters and air tankers for the agency.

And a long awaited report required by the Colorado legislature with options for aerial firefighting in the state was released March 28 by the CFAC.

As you can see below in the table that we put together, the two proposals are very different.

Comparisons of Colorado aerial resources proposals

One of the unusual features of the proposed legislation is the requirement that the large air tankers be capable of night operations. As far as we know, no wildland firefighting agency in the world has routinely conducted fixed wing retardant drops at night. Dropping retardant at 150 miles per hour at 100 to 150 feet above the ground in mountainous terrain with turbulent wind conditions is very difficult in daylight conditions. The proposal by the state senators to attempt to do it at night would be a huge leap above and beyond the current norm.

We asked Senator King, who has been very active in recent months about acquiring better aerial firefighting capacity for Colorado, for his impression of the recommendations in the CFAC report that came out seven days after his bill was introduced. He said he is willing to modify his bill:

[The CFAC proposal] reiterates that the state of Colorado desperately needs aerial resources to increase our rapid-response capabilities and the effectiveness of firefighters on the ground. While SB14-164 has been criticized for being too prescriptive, we needed a jumping-off point and myself and President Carroll would be more than willing to incorporate Director Cooke’s recommendations into the bill.