Wildland fire aviation in North America incorporates a variety of aircraft and operations. Helicopters are used primarily to drop water, transport crews, reconnaissance, infrared, and deliver resources to the fireline. Fixed-wing aircraft, meanwhile, include smokejumper transportation planes, air tactical platforms, Single Engine Airtankers (SEATs), large airtankers, and large transport aircraft. All aircraft, whether fixed wing or rotary, play critical roles in supporting firefighters on the ground.
Currently, Erickson, Coulson and many other operators have helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft operating in North America, where assets are much needed. A spokesperson for the Erickson told AirMed&Rescue: “We’re in the middle of both the US and European fire seasons. We expected rising temperatures, drought conditions and encroachment of wildland-urban interfaces to play a significant role this year – and we’ve seen just that. Our teams continue to adapt to more intense, longer fire seasons. As a result, we’re starting contracts earlier and extending well past what we used to know as the ‘end’ of fire season. Additionally, we continue to see annual increases in the number of aircraft, days and hours required to support agencies throughout the world.”
The US is currently seeing significant wildfire outbreaks across northwestern regions of the country, including California, where a number of aerial firefighting assets are deployed at the moment.
The US Forest Service has contracted several different providers to offer aerial firefighting services from air tankers in 2020, including 10 Tanker, Coulson Aviation, Aero Air, Aero Flite Inc., and Neptune Aviation. Fixed-wing aircraft deployed by these companies will be DC-10s, C-130s, MD-87, RJ-85, Nae-146 and Boeing 737. King Air 90 and 200s, OV-10s, and BE-90 and BE-200s will be used as lead plans and identifiers, or command and control aircraft.
When AirMed&Rescue investigated, it seemed that despite the fact that the US is one nation, each state deals with their own wildfire fighting assets, and this can cause confusion and duplication of assets. A spokesperson for Erickson Incorporated agreed that ‘fragmented is a great way to describe the contracting system within the US for aerial firefighting’. They continued: “Aviation and Fire are inherently complicated operations, when combined – they become an even more complicated mission pivoting on safety, jurisdiction, regulations, liability, operational control, and communication. The agencies, firefighters and operators supporting aerial firefighting within the US are incredible at savings lives, protecting property and supporting each other. The contracting systems utilized within the US can be difficult to navigate as an operator. Federal and State agencies utilize different contract vehicles and operators need to coordinate with individual agencies to ensure their assets are available to assist. Co-ordination and communication between agencies regarding asset availability hasn’t been a concern with Erickson. We’ve been fortunate to work with agencies that communicate transparently and work towards supporting the same goals and objectives.”
The heat is on in California
CAL FIRE operates 12 Super Hueys across the state, which are primarily used for fast initial attack on wildfires, as well as for medevacs. The crew consists of one pilot, two fire captains and eight firefighters. The payload is 324 gallons of water with bucket operations, with a gross weight of 10,500 pounds and cruise speed of 126 miles per hour. It has a range of 250 miles, endurance of two hours, rotor diameter of 48 feet and Turbine Lycoming T-53-703 engines. CalFire fields the largest state-owned wildland firefighting air assets, which comprise 23 S-2 Tracker air-tankers, 15 OV-10 Bronco air attack aircraft, and the aforementioned Super Hueys, as well as this year fielding the Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk, which will eventually replace the agency’s Huey fleet. The US$288-million investment is a game changer for the agency. What the Firehawks do for CAL FIRE is allow it to fly at night for the first time, an important step forward in effective aerial firefighting.
Deputy Chief Scott McLean, the Chief of Public Information for CAL FIRE, said that while Covid-19 had brought up some unique challenges for the crews, they were nonetheless prepared for the 2020 fire season: “As far as the troops on the front lines, preparations for the upcoming season are taking place. The seasonal firefighter application process took place last November and from that, we have a significant pool to draw from.” He added: “We bring on an average of 2,600 or so seasonal firefighters, and that’s going to continue. I’ve heard that, in some areas, the seasonal [workers] have returned already. It will take a few months to bring everybody back. We don’t bring them all on at once. All told, we have over 9,000 positions, including seasonal personnel.”
The Firehawk helicopters are certainly popular for fire agencies seeking to renew aging fleets. Los Angeles County Fire Department has invested in two, San Diego Fire Rescue has already taken delivery of one, and Ventura County is reported to be in the process of converting three HH-60L Black Hawks. There are other options out there, though, with Coulson Unical, for example, choosing to modify UH-60s with RADS internal water tanks.
Coulson Aviation USA
In March 2020, Coulson Aviation USA was awarded a multi-year contract with the USDA Forest Service for Next Generation Large Air Tanker Services throughout the US. The contract – beginning in 2020 – will see the first Boeing 737, Tanker 137 in operation. Coulson Aviation is the first in the world to modify Boeing 737’s into FIRELINER’s which utilize a new advanced delivery system specifically designed for this application, the RADS-XXL/2. To convert a 737 into a FIRELINER takes over 43,000-man hours and includes the RADS-XXL/2 installation, avionics upgrades, full strip and re-paint, new interior, and 72 refurbished passenger seats. Once complete, the FIRELINER is differentiated from all other Next Generation Large Airtankers by its ability to transport firefighters without re-configuration and to fly at maximum speeds and altitudes with a load of retardant and no restrictions. “The FIRELINER is truly the Next Generation of Next Generation Large Airtankers” said Britt Coulson, President and COO, Coulson Aviation. “The FIRELINER’s are a perfect complement to our C-130’s and having a diverse fleet assures our customers always have the right airtanker for the mission.”
In 2019, Coulson Aviation was also chosen by the US Air Force to install the RADS-XXL Firefighting Systems on the seven C-130H aircraft to be operated by CAL FIRE.
In Canada, Babcock was awarded a 10-year contract for aerial wildfire suppression services by the Government of Manitoba in 2018. The Wildfire Suppression Services Contract covers the entire province of Manitoba, over 649,950km2, and protects communities totaling a population of 1.3 million people.
Babcock established its centre for aviation in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and assumed operations in three satellite bases across the province, in Gimli, The Pas, and Thompson. Through the Wildfire Suppression Services contract, Babcock also undertook the management, maintenance, and operation of Manitoba’s fleet of seven Canadair water-bomber amphibious aircraft. The fleet consisted of four CL-415s and three CL-215s, as well as three Babcock-owned Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft. To support the aerial emergency services for the province, Babcock hired 32 full-time staff in critical operations and engineering roles. In its inaugural season of aerial wildfire suppression for the Province of Manitoba, the team was called on to help fight 277 wildfires across the province from April through to the end of September 2019. Crews flew 364 missions and made 4,092 drops, which amounted to over 25 million liters of water.
Babcock provides a full range of firefighting services and missions, from customizable services to fully integrated turn-key solutions, including: Water-dropping, firefighter transportation, fire pattern mapping, bird-dog aerial co-ordination operations, real-time imaging for command and control centers, planned incendiary burning, and specialist pilot training. Babcock was also recently given certification by Transport Canada as an Approved Maintenance Organization, which verifies that Babcock has met the regulatory requirements set by Transport Canada, and gives Babcock authorization to perform maintenance on aircraft, avionics, instruments and structures. The AMO has been opened on the following aircraft types:
- Beech King Air
- Canadair CL 215
- Canadair CL 415/215T
- Cessna Citation 560
- Gulfstream Turbo Commander
Talon Helicopters has the only AS365 N2 Dauphin that has been approved for nighttime firefighting by Transport Canada. Outfitted with the Simplex Model 301 belly tank, the company is looking forward to reducing the impact of wildfires by performing its initial fire attacks at night. For daytime aerial firefighting, maintenance crew can swiftly swap the Simplex tank for a FAST Bucket. Peter Murray, President of Talon Helicopters, said that the company is aiming to collect data on the efficacy of nighttime firefighting operations, seeking to evaluate the key differences between day and nighttime efforts.
Successful testing of the NVG-equipped Dauphin took place in July 2020 with the BC Wildfire Service. Leanna Ingham, Superintendent of Aviation Management for BC Wildfire Service, said the new technology was a game changer: “It won’t be used everywhere...but this gives us more tools in our toolbox. The temperatures are down, the humidity is up, and often the wind is down. So, it makes the water that much more effective coming from the aircraft.”
Aside from Russia, the US and Canada are the only countries in the world that employ smokejumpers – parachuting into the wildfire area to perform initial attack efforts, as well as providing leadership and guidance for extended firefighting. With nine bases (seven are operated by the Forest Service, and two by BLM) in the US, smokejumpers can respond to calls for assistance from many locations, with about 450 jumpers spread across the bases.
Around the world, firefighting agencies are trialing the use of drones to aid in the detection and management of wildfires. In the US, 69 out of the 347 public safety agencies that purchased drones between 2009 and 2017 were fire departments, according to DroneFly.com, and a recent report from Goldman Sachs estimated that US$881 million could be spent on drone use in aerial firefighting roles around the world, whether for scene monitoring, search and rescue, post-fire assessment, or active firefighting.