Washington Commissioner of Natural Resources discusses aerial firefighting

Hilary Franz

Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Washington State Department of Natural Resources
Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Washington State Department of Natural Resources, spoke at the Aerial Firefighting Conference in San Diego., March 22, 2022. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Hilary Franz, Commissioner of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources began her presentation Tuesday at the Aerial Firefighting Conference by describing a Christmas card sent by one of her predecessors in 1963. Commissioner Bert Cole wrote lamenting the devastation that the wildfires had caused that year in the state, burning 663 acres.

“The threats we face today,” she said, “is claiming 1,000 times that amount. Our firefighters face lengthening wildfire seasons starting earlier and ending later.”

When she was elected in 2016 to serve as Commissioner, the DNR had 40 full time firefighters and, “We had zero dollars appropriated every single year by the legislature to wildfire,” she said. “In fact, a legislature report just a decade ago concluded that the nine Vietnam-era Huey helicopters were too much and we might want to let a few of them go.”

But as fires have increased in recent years the policy of the DNR is now to launch helicopters “the moment smoke is in the air,” with the goal of keeping 90 percent of the fires to less than 10 acres.

In 2018 large fires in every corner of the state burned 440,000 acres. The DNR attempted to borrow aviation resources from other areas but none were available. Then 2020 was also very busy. By Labor day they had added another Huey to the fleet to bring the total up to ten and had a handful of single engine air tankers when the firestorm hit on the holiday. A small boy was killed as his family tried to outrun [the Cold Springs Fire].

Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Washington State Department of Natural Resources
Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Washington State Department of Natural Resources, spoke at the Aerial Firefighting Conference in San Diego., March 22, 2022. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

“It was my first civilian loss in this job,” she said, “and I swore I’d do anything and everything to prevent that ever happening again. As the fires were blazing and increasing in size, once again, we were calling for more air resources to help us contain these fires. And once again, because fires were burning up and down the entire west coast with even worse destruction, we heard that there were none available and we didn’t have enough values at risk. In 2021 I said I would never ever do 2020 again. I would never rely on another state or federal agencies [for the resources we need]. We will definitely continue to partner, but we also need to take responsibility for ourselves. My one responsibility is to protect the people of Washington and the firefighters who put their lives on the line.”

In 2021 the fires were even worse in Washington, Oregon, and California. The nation was at Preparedness Level 5, the maximum, for months. The number of aviation resources in Washington grew from about 10 to 35. The way they were staged across Washington made it possible to have an aircraft at a fire within 10 to 30 minutes. More than 98 percent of the fires were suppressed during initial attack, and 94 percent burned less than 10 acres.

“Because we have so few resources to do the job we need to do, to me it’s actually basic,” the Commissioner said. “Don’t play with fire. If a fire starts put it out immediately. It costs less and does far less damage the smaller it is and the sooner you can catch it. So while I’m personally afraid to fly, I’m not afraid of others flying.”

After listing and thanking the aerial firefighting companies that helped provide aviation resources in 2021, she said, “Your aircraft truly helped us prevent what could have been one of the worst fire season in my lifetime.”

In April, 2021, Washington’s House Bill 1168 was signed by the governor. It commits $125 million every two years over the next four biennial budgets ($500 million in total) to boost wildfire response, accelerate forest restoration, and build community resilience. The bill makes it possible to hire 100 more firefighters, increase the number of firefighting aircraft, detect new fires more quickly, and begin fighting fires at night with helicopters.

After she spoke at the conference, we spent a few minutes with Commissioner Hilary Franz to get a few more details which you will see in the video below.

Washington state DNR has 25 firefighting aircraft this year

Air Tanker 260
Air Tanker 260 scooping water at Castaic Lake December 6, 2017 . Photo by Robert Schwemmer.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources does not have any large air tankers on contract for firefighting this year, but they will have 25 other aircraft working on exclusive use (EU) or hybrid call when needed (CWN) contracts.

Russ Lane, the DNR’s Assistant Wildfire Division Manager for Operations and Aviation, told Fire Aviation that this year they will have their agency’s nine UH-1H helicopters and one from Chelan County Fire Department that they lease and operate. They will also hire a tanked UH-1 that will be supplied by High Performance Helicopters Corp. on a 60-day Mandatory Availability Period (MAP) call when needed contract.

Washington State DNR UH-1H helicopter
Washington State DNR UH-1H helicopter. DNR photo.

They will have two Type 1 helicopters on 89-day EU contracts — a tanked UH-60 from High Performance and a KMAX from Columbia Basin Helicopters.

Multi engine water scoopers
Currently the DNR has two Aero-Flite CL-415’s working; T-260 and T-262. On July 9 a Bridger Aerospace CL-415EAF, Tanker 283, came on duty fresh from the paint shop and carding. A second Bridger Aerospace CL-415EAF, Tanker 284, is expected on July 27. All four were picked up on CWN with 60-day MAPs. (More about the CL-415EAF aircraft.)

Tanker 283, CL-415EAF, N418BT
Tanker 283, CL-415EAF, N418BT. Bridger Aerospace photo.

Single-engine Air Tractor 802F water scoopers 
Three amphibious scoopers from Dauntless and two from Air Spray are working now.

Air Attack
There are two AC-500 air attack ships on 89-day EU contracts, and one “surge” Kodiak from Bridger Aerospace on a 60-day MAP CWN arrangement.

Air Tractor AT-802F Fire Boss. Air Tractor photo.
Air Tractor 802F Fire Boss. Air Tractor image.