In the 1970s, the US halted aerial firefighting activities at night due to cost and safety concerns. However, in 2014 Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado (CoE) signed a bill that established the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting and mandated research on night operations. A 2018 report from the CoE stated that: “Information gathered indicates that the cost and complexity of implementing a night aerial firefighting programme in any form would be substantial, regardless of the particular path chosen by the State. Night aerial supervision and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are also topics of research and will be part of any final recommendation.”
Since then, several countries – including the US and Australia – have come to the realisation that aerial firefighting at night, while presenting a different risk environment worth considering, comes with sufficient benefits to justify the practice.
Indeed, AirMed&Rescue spoke to Chris Doyle, COO at Co Fire Aviation Inc. in Colorado, who said that not only is it safer to fight fires at night, it is more effective. Lower temperatures, increased humidity and reduced windspeed, for example, all result in conditions in which fires can be more easily brought under control; while fewer aircraft in the air means safer skies and less radio noise to distract crews from their vital work.
Increased risk mitigation strategies currently in use are more in-depth reconnaissance before and during the flights, the use of night vision technology, and working in pairs to ensure crew safety.
Doyle explained that, ‘working with air attack using night vision goggles (NVGs) and laser pointer capabilities, the talk on and target description is more efficient and accurate’. The need for the helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to be equipped correctly increases though, and in addition to the obvious firefighting modifications, there needs to be NVGs and forward-looking infrared (FLIR) onboard. More on that later.
New trials happening
Despite the cost, global climate change has resulted in higher temperatures and more severe wildfires, prompting officials to reconsider their options for firefighting. One of the authorities in aerial firefighting is Coulson Aviation, based in Canada, but with operations around the world.
Wayne Coulson, President and CEO of the Coulson Group, told AirMed&Rescue that the company’s venture into nighttime firefighting operations has been ‘a long road’. “We started to explore night flying operations in the 1990s; flying timber off the tops of mountains, utilising twin Night Suns on the landing gear and assisted lighting the area of felled timber focusing on the perimeter with stadium lighting,” he explained. “We tried NVGs at the time, however the pilots’ depth perception was far from what the technology is today on the NVGs we are utilising. We operated this programme for five years’ winters only, as we had short days and bad weather – so to keep our utilisation up and stay efficient, this worked well.”
Then, in 2009, it all changed with the terrible events of Black Saturday in Australia, where, in the course of one day, 173 people died in wildfires. Coulson Aviation had deployed two Sikorsky S-61s to aid firefighting efforts, but as Coulson said: “There was so much work to be done that evening [that] when the aircraft parked for the day, we all felt helpless.” Upon their return to Canada, work began on figuring out how to operate safely and effectively at night. A decade and 14 different night trials later, operations could begin.
Expanding on the trials, Coulson said: “Our night aerial firefighting programme is unique as we have an over-site helicopter virtually watching and guiding the firebombing helicopter called Firewatch, which is an S-76 intelligence platform with a thermal imaging camera and mapping program.
This [S-76] aircraft’s job is to seek out safe dip sites and drop sites for the firebombing heavy lift helicopter (S-61) with a 4,000-gallon tank. This approved process allows the firebombing helicopter to ‘hover fill’ versus ground fill, and the difference makes or breaks this night programme.” The level of safety the S-76 provides firebombing operations with allowed Coulson to obtain Civil Aviation Safety Authority (FAA equivalent) to approve 24-hour operations in Australia.
One of the key aspects of the trial was the hover fill of the aircraft
In 2018, Craig Lapsley, Emergency Management Commissioner for Victoria, commented: “While the use of NVGs and infrared technology isn’t new, these have not been used together in Australia. We are very keen to trial this capability, and understand how it would work in a system, and make it safe to do so.”
One of the key aspects of the trial was the hover fill of the aircraft. Project Manager Wayne Rigg said Victoria’s two helicopters, based at Ballarat and Mangalore, both practiced ground filling and hover filling operations overnight at Mansfield. “We continue to learn more about night vision operations each day, and undertaking exercises like this helps us to understand the logistics and resources required to get an operation like this up and running – and to understand how we might apply this to the field,” he said. “It also enables our night pilots to build their experience in flying in and out of these ground fill sites and build skills in dropping a snorkel into the top of a tank while flying with NVGs. Using ground fill and floating tank is an option that might be utilised in situations where water is not readily available in dams or lakes close to a fire, but fire agencies can get water to a suitable site with tankers to establish a ground fill site where aircraft can fill from.
Richard Butterworth, Project Manager and Lead Pilot for Kestrel Night Aerial Firefighting for Kestrel Aviation Pty Ltd, detailed some of the risks associated with the trialled techniques: “One of the key areas of identified risk is hover fill operations from open water sources. Natural and manmade water sources are prone to obstacles that are difficult to detect and prolonged hovering over water can lead to spatial disorientation and contact with terrain / obstacles.” He added: “Aerial fire suppression operations in Australia rely on the use of hover fill operations due to dispersed resources and a strategic need for operational flexibility. This was therefore a key objective for the Victorian Government to pursue the operational test and evaluation of a night hover fill capability.” Kestrel Aviation completed over 300 operational hover fill serials with great success during the trial, although it should be noted that this phase of the programme required all operations to be preceded by a day reconnaissance of the intended hover fill site.
Speaking in February 2019, Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said the experience gained for both day and night crews during the trial deployments was extremely valuable. “Incident controllers and incident management teams have been willing to utilise the capability, which means our teams are gaining valuable experience and information in relation to firefighting at night,” he said. “The training, process and protocols were established before the deployments have seen the night firebombing capability successfully integrate into a number of incidents across the state, in different terrain and fuel types. It’s important that we continue to learn through experience and [ascertain] how we can further utilise this capability over the summer.”
In March 2019, the final operation for the 2018-19 fire season in Australia took place, and Crisp asserted that the trials had been successful
In March 2019, the final operation for the 2018-19 fire season in Australia took place, and Crisp asserted that the trials had been successful. “The trial has been about testing our safety procedures and there will be opportunities to learn from what we’ve achieved over summer,” he said. “We will continue to debrief and determine what our next steps are; part of that is to look strategically, and based on risk, where and how we look at building our capacity.”
Elsewhere, Butterworth noted that the Night Fire Suppression Operation (NFSO) co-ordinated by Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) was designed to evaluate the viability of night helicopter firebombing across a vast array of environmental and operational contexts. “The successful use of night vision was demonstrated across a vast range of environmental contexts that included low illumination, low contrast, steep terrain, incompatible light sources rich in obscurants and precipitation,” he said. “In short, aircraft were able to safely hover fill from various sites and deliver the water accurately as directed by government air attack supervisors conducting overwatch.”
The next step would be to introduce fixed-wing air tankers to fight fires at night.
In July 2019, Orange County Fire Authority teamed up with Coulson Aviation to introduce a five-month trial period for two firefighting helicopters that would be manned 24 hours a day to respond to calls in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernadino counties in California. The US$4-million funding for the trial came from Southern California Edison and involved one S-61 Type 1 Helitanker aircraft, which is capable of holding over 1,000 gallons of water following a hover fill.
The second helicopter, an S-76, is for intelligence gathering, providing real-time mapping, fire modelling and prediction
The second helicopter, an S-76, is for intelligence gathering, providing real-time mapping, fire modelling and prediction. The intelligence aircraft crew has the ability to locate hotspots through their NVGs and point a laser directly at the spot, indicating to the water dropping aircraft exactly where they need to target their drop.
Coulson gave AirMed&Rescue more details: “The approved standard operating procedure for the S-76 Firewatch intel helicopter was, once upon the fire, to take a few minutes and map the fire and send the shape file to the University of San Diego fire prediction computer. Within five minutes, it produces a fire map predicting the direction of the fire growth in 30-minute increments – with extreme accuracy based on 160 inputs from weather stations in the Los Angeles basin. This key information goes to the incident commander, as well as team members on the fire, and creates a focus for safety and planning strategy and execution of extinguishing the fire.” The company is keen to promote the fact that it has documentation of an incident during a Santa Ana wind event that posed a catastrophic situation that the night flying program mitigated.
The pilot’s perspective:
AirMed&Rescue spoke to Richard Butterworth, Project Manager and Lead Pilot for Kestrel Night Aerial Firefighting for Kestrel Aviation Pty Ltd, about his experiences during the recent trials in Australia. He has operated with night vision systems for over 20 years, both in a military and civilian context, and having experienced the effects of low contrast, high levels of obscurants, and bright light sources from exploding ordnance and urban theatres, he was confident that night vision would transition well to the fire ground environment.
He said: “During the conduct of Victorian contract operations in the summer of 2018-19, one of the enduring features of operating in close proximity to active fire grounds was the significant increase in surrounding light, which translated to: increased performance from night vision devices; improved performance in terms of terrain interpretation and obstacle detection; and the ability to maintain visual acuity in localised smoke.” He added: “Kestrel was utilising latest generation image intensifiers (Photonis Gen 4 Intens), which improve performance in low contrast settings, as well as maintain desired levels of visual acuity in and around bright light sources through reduced blooming effects.”
In January this year, Israeli company Elbit Systems completed a successful field demonstration of its patented HyDrop system as part of an exercise by the Israel Fire and Rescue Authority, and in doing so, managed to lift a longstanding restriction on firefighting at night. Using the HyDrop system, two Air Tractors launched 1.6-tons of 140-gram liquid pellets in a computed ballistic trajectory, achieving a precise hit with saturation of one to two litres per one square metre.
Yair Ganor, Senior Director, Elbit Systems Aerial Firefighting Solutions, explained the need for a fresh approach to firefighting at night: “Since 1953, aerial firefighting has been carried out using liquid cascade drop methods that require sorties to be conducted at an altitude of a 100-120 feet in order to reduce liquid loss caused by the aerosol effect. Such low-altitude flights are restricted to daytime due to safety concerns and Civil Aviation Regulations. The experience from around the globe clearly shows that restricting aerial firefighting to daytime severely degrades its operational contribution. Addressing this needs gap, Elbit Systems developed the Hydrop system that enables a high-precision computed launch of bio-degradable liquid pellets from 500-2,000 feet – altitudes that are safe and certified for night-flight by Civil Aviation.”
Investment pays off
So, back to the earlier point on equipment and training needed for both aircraft and crew. Doyle told AirMed&Rescue that the most significant investment was in the NVGs and aircraft modifications. “We [are lucky] in that we have a wealth of NVG experience in the particular platform we operate (Air Tractor 802),” he said. “So, although it has been a huge investment, because of our experience, it has been streamlined in knowing what we needed in terms of training and execution.”
Training the crew on the aircraft was much less challenging than educating the ground personnel and logistical staff on the concept of nighttime firefighting
Training the crew on the aircraft, he added, was much less challenging than educating the ground personnel and logistical staff on the concept of nighttime firefighting. “We knew we were up against it because everyone else that’s involved with aerial firefighting who has not directly flown with the technology has a lot of questions, and rightly so. We have invested a lot of time presenting this technology and giving non-aircrew people the opportunity to look first hand through the NVGs and answer their concerns.”
According to Coulson, nighttime firefighting will soon become the rule, rather than the exception: “Within the next five years, I would expect night operations to become part of all urban interface fire agency operations and we are looking forward to introducing the C-130 Hercules as the very first air tanker to enter night operations.”
And Richard Butterworth also expounds the view that nighttime firefighting will gain more traction in the future. “Nighttime firebombing absolutely has its place. The focus of aerial firefighting needs to be on initial attack, which can be done very effectively at night,” he said. “A key aspect of any trial is to emulate daytime activities, which we will be doing more of at the end of this season.”
Making progress towards approval from governments and regulating authorities remains a challenge, though, with perception management being one of the biggest hurdles that has to be overcome. Until the authorities are convinced that nighttime firefighting is as safe – or perhaps even safer – than daytime activities, its effect will be limited.
This article first appeared in the March 2020 Firefighting Special Edition.