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.

New air tanker base to be constructed in Colorado Springs

It is expected to open in 2021

Tanker 944, a 747-400
Tanker 944, a 747-400, at the Colorado Springs airport, May 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The City of Colorado Springs and the US Forest Service are going to build a new permanent air tanker base at the Colorado Springs Airport.

On January 24, the Forest Service signed a lease agreement with the Colorado Springs Airport. The two agencies will share the costs for construction and maintenance, currently budgeted at approximately $20 million.

“This project is a perfect example of how we can work within all levels of government to promote shared stewardship,” said Forest Service Acting Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien.

The one-and-a-half-acre base will create six reload pits for any type of contracted air tanker, including Very Large Air Tankers such as the DC-10 and 747. It will be the largest base in the region, with the ability to serve a 600-mile radius — including Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska. The base will have the ability to reload multiple airtankers at once. This will allow an increased amount of retardant to be sent to a wildfire faster and with greater efficiency. It will also help the firefighters on the ground and protect communities from the approaching threat of wildfire. By being able to service aircraft of all sizes and capabilities, the base will also reduce the total number of flights needed to fight a wildfire in the area, reducing the risk to additional flight crews and other regions.

The new eight-acre ramp to be built will be near the airport’s main 13,500-foot runway and adjacent to the U.S. Army-operated ramp. During the winter months when the Forest Service is not using it, the airport will use it as a de-icing area for commercial aircraft.

The Forest Service has occasionally set up a temporary retardant base at the Colorado Springs Airport that had two pits and parking for six aircraft. The only permanent base in Colorado for large air tankers has been JEFFCO at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport near Denver. It has two pits but can fill only one air tanker at a time and can’t handle Very Large Air Tankers.

Vanessa Lacayo, the Acting Press Officer for the Forest Service  Rocky Mountain Region, said the agency has no plans to close any other bases, including Single Engine Air Tanker Bases, after opening this new facility at Colorado Springs.

The Air Force Reserve base at Colorado Springs airport can activate two C-130 aircraft to serve as air tankers if needed, using the slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System, or MAFFS.

The headquarters for Global Supertanker is in Colorado Springs and their 747 Supertanker is sometimes parked at the airport.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the new base is scheduled for spring 2020. Construction is set to begin this summer, with completion and a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2021.

Congress awarded the Forest Service funding for the project as part of the 2018 Omnibus Bill that repurposed previous allocations to the agency’s Aviation Safety and Modernization Strategy. The Department of Agriculture prioritized the Colorado Springs Airtanker Base as one of the highest investments for Aviation Safety Modernization Projects, representing nearly one-fourth of the $37.2 million budget. The City of Colorado Springs is providing additional funding through a partnership agreement.

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

New mission for Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft

Monday night it was investigating the drone activity that has been observed in Colorado and other states

Drone Swarms
CBS News

One of Colorado’s two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-Mission Aircraft”, primarily used for detecting and mapping wildfires, took on a new mission January 6.  Its new job that night was related to the swarms of drones that have been seen in recent weeks over Colorado and Nebraska.

There are reports that up to 30 drones at a time have been flying in sparsely populated areas of the two states. A number of agencies are trying to figure out what the drones are doing, including the FBI, FAA, Air Force, and the Army. Authorities are looking for a closed box trailer or a large van with antennas that could be used as a command vehicle.

The operators of the drones may not have broken any laws, but the very unusual aviation activity has generated many questions.

PC-12 multimission durango airport
Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 multimission aircraft, and Durango airport’s Oshkosh crash rescue truck. Photo by Rick Freimuth May 31, 2019.

The PC-12 spent almost five hours Monday night flying at 14,750-feet in an irregular pattern northeast of Denver. According to Fox News in Denver, “The joint operation found no verification of suspicious drones,” said Caley Fisher, a spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

On January 9 the Colorado Department of Public Safety released a statement about the PC-12 mission. Here is an excerpt:

On Monday, January 6, 2020, the MMA flew for 4.8 hours in northeast Colorado, communicating with law enforcement vehicles on the ground.

As calls came in reporting potential suspicious drone activity, the MMA was prepared to identify which ground resource was closest to the sighting in order to deploy that vehicle in search of more information. The aircraft typically flies 10,000 feet above ground level (AGL), well above drone operations.

The MMA has the capability to detect heat signatures; it did not detect any suspicious heat signatures or drones related to the drone reportings during its flight. During the flight of the MMA, every report of a suspicious drone was investigated and was resolved, and none was substantiated.

From the Daily Mail, January 9, 2020:

…Meanwhile, another drone sighting was reported near Omaha, Nebraska, on Tuesday night. Television cameras for WOWT-TV spotted the mysterious flying object just outside of Mead, Nebraska.

An unmanned aircraft measuring about four-to-six feet was seen flying overhead. According to the news channel, the drone flew so close to the ground that the sound of the propellers could be heard on camera.

Local officials are baffled as to why anyone would operate a drone over an area that is entirely made up of rural farmland.

‘There’s not much out here to look at, so it kind of makes you wonder, well, if they’re not looking at anything, what are they planning, you know? Or whoever or whatever is going on?’ Saunders County Deputy Kyle Kennenbeck said.

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

Video of MAFFS air tanker crews training to fight fire

Video of the C-130s was shot in May, 2019 during annual MAFFS training at Colorado Springs, Colorado

MAFFS drop
MAFFS drop. Screenshot from the video.

The video below was posted today by AIRAILIMAGES. Here is their description:


Footage depicts Air National Guard C-130H Hercules transports fitted with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) making low passes and water drops during the 2019 training and recertification of MAFFS crews in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in May. Visible also is the U.S. Forest Service’s new King Air 250 lead plane, flying ahead of a C-130 from the Nevada Air National Guard 152nd Airlift Wing. An OV-10 Bronco later leads a C-130 from the Wyoming Air National Guard 153rd Airlift Wing. Listen for thunder in the mountains as the Wyoming ANG flies. Several military C-130 units are MAFFS-qualified to assist in wildfire containment during peak fire season when civilian air tanker assets are heavily tasked. The MAFFS system can be installed in a standard C-130 when needed.

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

P3 Air Tanker Water Drop Filmed from 20000 feet

Demonstration water drop Tanker 23, P3 Orion
Demonstration water drop by Tanker 23, a P3 Orion operated by Airstrike. June 28, 2019 at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland, Colorado. Filmed by Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 MultiMission aircraft. Screenshot from the video below.

A P3 Air Tanker, Tanker 23, made a demonstration water drop at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland, Colorado June 28, 2019 while Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 MultiMission aircraft filmed it from 20,000 feet. The aircraft has a Call When Needed contract with the state of Colorado for fighting wildfires.

You can also watch the video on YouTube.

More information about the demonstration, including a video shot from the ground.

Colorado’s PC-12 mobilized to Alaska

The crew will provide intelligence on emerging and existing large fires in central Alaska

PC-12 Colorado aircraft MMA
File photo of one of Colorado’s two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft” at Sacramento McClellan Airport March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

One of Colorado’s two Multi-mission Pilatus PC-12 aircraft is being dispatched to Alaska to assist with the wildfires burning in the state. The other will remain in Colorado and continue supporting fires and other incidents there.

The PC-12 will depart Centennial today, July 2, to be based out of Fairbanks, Alaska. The crew consists of two sensor operators, a pilot, and a mechanic. The team will support initial attack firefighters and provide intelligence on emerging and existing large fires in central Alaska.

Meanwhile the other PC-12 in Colorado is on fire detection missions today in Jefferson County, Douglas County, and the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest.

PC-12 Colorado aircraft MMA
Guy Jones describes the intelligence console on Colorado’s PC-12 Multi-Mission Aircraft, at Sacramento McClellan Airport, March 23, 2016.

P3 demonstration drop in Colorado

Tanker 23, a P3 Orion, making a demonstration drop at Northern Colorado Regional Airport June 28, 2019. Screengrab from
Tanker 23, a P3 Orion, makes a demonstration drop at Northern Colorado Regional Airport June 28, 2019. Screengrab from @CReppWx video.

Air tanker 23, a P3 Orion (N923AU), appeared at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland June 28 as promised. The airport conducted what they called a “media day”, allowing media personnel to view the aircraft. The public was not invited.

The video below from Cory Reppenhagen of Nine News (@CReppWx) shows Tanker 23 dropping. The announced plan was for it to drop BLAZETAMER380, a water enhancing gel that looks similar to water when released by an air tanker.

The state of Colorado has a Call When Needed contract with Airstrike Firefighters that would allow the company’s fleet of P3s to be used in the state if they are available. Airstrike is working to restore seven P3s that were formerly operated by Aero Union.

Air Tanker 23 P3 Orion
On March 15, 2018 Tanker 23 was in the process of being made fire-ready again at Airstrike Firefighter’s facility at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
P3 Orion air tanker 17, 22, 23
Tankers 17, 22, and 23, all P3 Orions being restored at Airstrike Firefighters in Sacramento. Photo by Sergio Mara, at Sacramento McClellan Airport, January 2019.

Buffalo Airways and Airstrike are working together to restore Tanker 22.

Buffalo P3 Joe McBryan tanker 22
Ronald Guy (left) of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan (right) of Buffalo Airways on the purchase of Tanker 22, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base March 19, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

More photos of the P3s in the hangar at McClellan.

New aerial ignition device for helicopters tested in Colorado

Colorado Division of Fire Prevent and Control Cañon Helitack
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack conducts Hover Step training.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack crew recently conducted Hover Step training and also tested new aerial ignition equipment in partnership with the Forest Service’s Technology and Development program. The aerial ignition devices included the Sling Dragon, developed by SEI Industries, and a modified helitorch assembly.

This is the first time a Type 2 helicopter has tested this equipment. The Technology and Development program provides practical solutions to problems identified by U.S. Forest Service employees and cooperators.

(Photos and text from the DFPC’s Facebook page)

Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Cañon Helitack
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack tests an aerial ignition device.
Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Cañon Helitack aerial ignition
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack tests an aerial ignition device.