Kenny Chapman is an aerial firefighting pilot for Erickson Incorporated who has been flying over orange smoke-filled skies via helicopter for over 50 years, including nearly all the major countries struck annually by devastating forest fires – Australia, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Chile, and the US. One of the most impactful was the Carr Fire in Redding, California in 2018; “I’ve never seen a fire move that fast,” he reflected.
The Carr Fire, started by sparks from the bare wheel rim of a travel trailer, burned close to 230,000 square acres and almost 360 square miles in the Shasta and Trinity Counties of California. It has been cited as the seventh-largest wildfire in California history, killing eight people, including three firefighters. The cost to fight this human-caused fire was US$104,500,000, and involved six different agencies and nearly 4,800 personnel. Chapman worked to mitigate the fire using Erickson’s S-64 Air Crane® helicopter.
Chapman explained that many government agencies from municipalities, county, and federal agencies are present during any massive fire. While the Carr Fire was managed by CAL FIRE, all the agencies work together to support each other. “It is a team effort,” Chapman said.
Focus on prevention
While Erickson and other private aviation companies have been significant contributors to worldwide aerial firefighting for over 20 years, preventative efforts to decrease risk in fire frequency and acceleration have also increased.
The US Department of the Interior recently announced significant updates to wildland firefighting. On 18 November 2020, The Department of the Interior said that it has once again made substantial progress to reduce the risk of wildfire nationwide, treating 5.4 million acres of land since 2017 and a 10-year best, 1.5 million acres in the Fiscal Year 2020.
The release notes that it was through the leadership of President Trump and Secretary Bernhardt, that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reduced fuel loads in fire-prone areas.
The agency treated more than 750,000 acres since 2017 ‘using a variety of active management vegetation treatments including mechanical, biological, and chemical tools as well as prescribed fire’. Chapman, who has spent his life-fighting forest fires, supports these efforts. “I praise any groups making efforts; it is a function of money and will take an Olympic task to clean up forests that will prevent future fires of this magnitude. Any land management utilizing fire pre-suppression is important to reduce suppression costs.”
The Forest History Society offers an explanation about the evolution of fire suppression vs forest thinning and the ‘let burn’ policy, which allowed for natural caused fires to burn in wildland areas. The topic has been controversial because it involves a myriad of fundamental philosophical beliefs about forest management, government intervention and funding, and commercial enterprises involved in fire management.
Preparation results in smoother transitions
Erickson Incorporated begins preparing for fire season months in advance. Mobilization of aircraft happens in different locations throughout the world. Crews are positioned to load and unload aircraft from boats or airplanes. Pilots transition from servicing one customer to another, in addition to maintaining pilot training and flight proficiency. Each logistical element is perfectly choreographed by several teams to ensure safety and operational success. It is truly an incredible sight to watch any operator prepare for a fire season and selflessly support and serve the various firefighting agencies.
The latest innovations
One exciting new technology designed to increase efficiency in aerial firefighting is the development of carbon fiber blades for the S-64 Air Crane® helicopter. Recently certified by the FAA, Erickson created the special composite blades to be aerodynamically superior to the prior metal blades and permit the aircraft to lift more weight at higher altitudes in hotter conditions. According to Chief Engineer Billy Johnson, “This is especially important for wildland firefighting, where the missions are carried out in very hot conditions and frequently at high altitudes, and where the critical aspect is trying to get as much water or retardant as possible delivered to the fire in the most efficient way possible.”
The S-64 Air Crane® helicopter can haul and drop up to 25,000 pounds of water to diffuse a blaze and can go back for more all day long. The new carbon fiber blades are currently in the manufacture and distribution stage and will be deployed worldwide in 2021.
All were designed and built with one objective: enable S-64 operators to perform their missions more effectively
Versions of the new rotor blade are currently being certified for all models of the Air Crane® aircraft, in both commercial and restricted categories. Benefits are expected to include higher lift capacity in almost all flight conditions, including a significant lift increase at hot and high conditions, a 33 per cent lower manufacturing cost, 75 per cent lower maintenance costs, and three per cent lower fuel consumption.
Erickson has designed, certified, and installed a wide range of mission-specific products for S-64 customers, including a world-class firefighting tank, a water cannon, a dynamic sea snorkel, an anti-rotation device, and a hydroseed delivery system. All were designed and built with one objective: enable S-64 operators to perform their missions more effectively. With this objective in mind, Erickson recently announced the ‘Future of Fire’ initiative, innovating the Air Crane® fleet with the latest technology to tackle the dangers of night firefighting missions with one primary goal – to increase safety for all personnel.
Increasing safety and effectiveness is important to all firefighting organizations. Fortunately, Erickson has been hard at work in delivering solutions to wildfire management around the world. The purpose built S-64 Air Crane® helicopter and fire suppression tank for aerial firefighting can drop up to 25,000 gallons (94,635 liters) per trip, allowing for maximum effectiveness when supporting initial or extended attack missions.
Each of Erickson’s fire tanks can also hold up to 2,650 gallons (10,000 liters) of water with foam injection capability. In other words, Erickson’s helitankers come equipped with the precision drop capabilities of a helicopter and the volume of a large, multi-engine, fixed-wing water bomber.
The global threat posed by wildfires continues to increase exponentially. In the European Union (EU), agencies and organizations are battling a 283-per-cent increase in total acres burned as compared to 2018. While the increase was significant, the total acres burned in 2019 represented only 56 per cent of the total acres burned in 2017, indicating the continued unpredictability of each fire season, and the need for the most advanced and effective aerial assets to scale with acres burned each season. The European Union reported that in 2019, the forest fires in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa were affected by climate change in both the intensity and extent of the fires, and they are working collectively across agencies for better prevention and preparedness. Combining newer, more advanced technologies with wildland management is crucial to the success of any agency’s wildfire management strategy.
Effective use of new technologies along with proven fire suppression efforts can help to mitigate the increase of severity in the fire seasons across the globe. Adoption of newer technologies will enhance safety and the ability of government and external players to suppress wildfires sooner and at less cost in the future. The ability to fully support agencies and provide newer technologies in an evolving wildfire landscape will come at a cost. Whether governments are prepared to provide additional funding, investment and support for firefighting personnel, greatly reducing the risk and spread of wildfires and enhancing the safety and security of the public, their homes, our collective natural resources and precious wildlands, is the question every constituent should be asking of their state, local and federal representatives.