In view of the more severe fire seasons that have been experienced in recent years, the management of aerial firefighting assets has become ever more strategic. Rescue organizations are paying increasing attention to firefighting resources and asset management solutions.
AERIAL ASSET MANAGEMENT
Aerial firefighting assets encompass a range of aircraft and equipment utilized to combat wildfires. Among the commonly used assets there are fixed-wing aircraft – including air tankers and scoopers – which are capable of dropping fire retardants or water over affected areas, affirms Éder Navacerrada, an independent aerial firefighting consultant. “These aircraft are often modified for firefighting purposes, and their capacities and efficiency have been improving. For instance, newer aircraft designs/technologies allow for increased payload capacity and faster turnaround times,” he said.
Helicopters are other precious assets, and they play a crucial role in firefighting efforts when combined with the forceful drops of fixed-wing aircraft, according to Navacerrada. “They can perform various tasks, such as water drops, transporting firefighting personnel, conducting reconnaissance, and even providing medical evacuation support,” he said. “Advancements in helicopter technology have led to improved lifting capabilities, longer flight durations, and enhanced maneuverability.”
Uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly being deployed in firefighting operations, Navacerrada pointed out: “Today they provide real-time aerial surveillance, thermal imaging, and mapping capabilities, enabling firefighters to assess fire behavior, identify hotspots, and plan containment strategies more effectively.”
In recent years, the severity of fire seasons has driven the evolution of aerial firefighting assets, explained Navacerrada. “Key developments include enhanced efficiency, as aircraft manufacturers are focusing on improving the speed, range, and capacity of aerial firefighting assets. This allows for quicker response times and increased effectiveness in suppressing wildfires,” he said. “Also, advanced fire retardant delivery systems, such as gel-based retardants, are being developed to improve the effectiveness of aerial drops or night vision capabilities to continue working non-stop when the fires are more vulnerable. Lastly, the integration of sophisticated sensors and imaging technologies in aircraft and drones helps gather accurate data for situational awareness and decision making.”
In the European Union (EU), the 2023 rescEU reserve of capacities comprises 28 firefighting aircraft (which numbered only 13 in 2022). This includes 24 firefighting airplanes and four helicopters from 10 member states of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, according to a spokesperson for the European Commission. “Ground firefighting teams of more than 440 firefighters will be prepositioned in France (approximately 170), Greece (approximately 200), and Portugal (approximately 60) from 11 member states. This resource sharing program is coordinated under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. The EU co-finances the travel, accommodation, subsistence and some part of the operations costs of European firefighters to France, Greece and Portugal, and back to the countries of origin. The rescEU reserve complements and enhances the assets that are available so far from the European Civil Protection Pool (ECPP),” the spokesperson said.
The switch between fire seasons in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres presents an opportunity for resource and skill sharing
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism can also be activated for disasters outside of Europe. Thanks to this, the EU has been able to deploy, for instance, more than 250 emergency responders to Chile, said a spokesperson for the European Commission.
According to Navacerrada, the switch between fire seasons in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres presents an opportunity for resource and skill sharing. As fire seasons in the Northern Hemisphere typically occur during the months from June to September, the Southern Hemisphere experiences its fire seasons during the opposite months (December to March).
“This temporal difference allows for collaboration between countries in terms of resource allocation and support. For example, Spanish operators have been providing services in Chile every season for the past 20 years,” he affirmed. “US/Canada and Australia are another example of Northern and Southern Hemisphere cooperation. Overall, organizations increase their fleet profit, and we fly more and stay better trained, increasing safety. If, instead of 100–200 hours per year, we fly 400–500, we become more effective and safer. It also gives us the opportunity to ferry fly our fleets overseas, which is both challenging and rewarding.”
In addition, firefighters from different hemispheres can exchange experiences, best practices, and expertise to enhance firefighting capabilities, observed Navacerrada. “Training programs and joint exercises can be organized during the off-season, enabling personnel to learn from one another’s strategies and tactics,” he said.
The sharing of resources and skills between seasons happens also at a more regional level. For example, Wyoming State Forestry Division (WSFD) has not utilized Southern Hemisphere resources in the past, but has had Canadian assets assist fire suppression at a national (US) level, said Christopher Fallbeck, Assistant Fire Management Officer at WSFD.
There is a ‘zone defense’ strategy in place whereby aircraft that are based in the northern states are utilized in the southern states during the early fire season
The USA has a typical fire season that moves from the southern states to the northern states, so there is a ‘zone defense’ strategy in place whereby aircraft that are based in the northern states are utilized in the southern states during the early fire season, explained Chris Delaney, State Fire Management Officer at the Bureau of Land Management Utah. “Then, when the fire season starts to move north across the USA, we will start moving those southern aircraft north following the fire season,” he said. “The USA has aircraft based in Alaska, where the fire season is usually wrapping up by mid- to late July. In July, most of the western USA is in severe conditions and has potential for large fires, so we are moving those aircraft down from Alaska to the lower 48 states.”
According to Fallbeck, the increased severity of wildfire seasons has mandated that states become more active in all facets of fire suppression, including aviation. “Having state contracted aircraft allows more operational control over these assets, so they can assign their own priorities that are insulated when relying on national assets,” he pointed out.
According to Navacerrada, government and state contracts and fleets are indeed evolving to enhance resilience in the firefighting domain. “We are seeing a clear example with rescEU in Europe. Key developments include increased funding, as governments are allocating additional funding to strengthen firefighting capabilities. This includes investment in the procurement and maintenance of aerial firefighting assets, as well as the training and recruitment of firefighting personnel,” he said.
“Also, fleet modernization is important, as firefighting agencies are updating their fleets to ensure they are equipped with state-of-the-art aircraft and equipment. This includes retiring older, less efficient assets and acquiring newer, more technologically advanced ones. Modernized fleets offer improved performance, increased safety features and enhanced operational efficiency.”
RescEU could be the trigger for a common view and standard procedures
Governments and firefighting agencies are increasingly entering into collaborative contracts with private operators and suppliers, affirmed Navacerrada. “Another development regards integrated approaches. There is growing recognition of the need for integrated approaches to wildfire management. This involves fostering cooperation between different agencies, such as fire departments, forestry services and emergency management organizations,” he said. “By working together, these entities can pool resources, streamline coordination and develop comprehensive strategies to mitigate the impact of severe fire seasons. Although we are still far from standardization, and in Europe each nation has different procedures, rescEU could be the trigger for a common view and standard procedures. For example, the United Aerial Firefighters Association in the USA brings together the most experienced industry experts to provide a strong and coordinated voice for the entire aerial firefighting community to inform policymakers and legislators about important issues concerning aerial wildland firefighting matters.”
The EU is gradually stepping up its investments and, indeed, this year the firefighting fleet of rescEU is more than double that of
This year, the firefighting fleet of rescEU is more than double that of last year’s
last year’s. Meanwhile, and with a longer-term perspective, the European Commission is also developing its own fleet, according to a spokesperson. “Setting up a fleet of firefighting aircraft takes time, given that the global production of some types of firefighting airplanes has been paused. Therefore, the market has been limited in offering new medium-sized amphibious firefighting planes,” the spokesperson said. “According to the current planning, the first EU fully financed medium-sized amphibious firefighting planes, of the brand Canadair, are to join the current rescEU fleet in 2027. They will be positioned in Greece and France and come in addition to two light firefighting planes, of the type Fire Boss, that were financed by the Commission since 2020, positioned in Sweden. The Commission is now concluding negotiations with a Canadian producer for the delivery of a significant number of new firefighting planes that will boost the rescEU fleet. The 12 planes are expected to be progressively operational as of 2027.”
Governments are also investing in research and development initiatives to enhance firefighting techniques, fire prediction models, and early warning systems, affirmed Navacerrada. “These efforts aim to improve preparedness, response times, and the overall effectiveness of firefighting operations,” he said. “Overall, the development of government and state contracts and fleets is focused on building resilience in the face of more severe fire seasons. The goal is to strengthen firefighting capabilities, optimize resource allocation, and foster collaboration among different stakeholders to effectively combat wildfires.”
It seems like every year the ‘new normal’ is something that was never seen before, such as larger fires, or extreme fire behavior, according to Delaney. “In the USA, we used to talk about fire seasons from April until October; what we are talking about now is ‘fire years’, because of climate change and a year-round fire season,” he said. “With this new normal, which is not really normal, we are always evaluating the efficiency and the capabilities of aircraft as well as our personnel. We have worked to extend our aircraft contracts: whereas five years ago they might have been on a 60-day contract, we now have aircraft on 90- to 120-day contracts. We used to have five to six people on an aircraft, and we are now staffing with nine to 11.”
The evolution of the fire environment, and how resilience is being built in, is one of the aspects the Federal Government is interested in, said Delaney. “Capacity can also help to build resilience. Giving personnel the ability to take time off during the summer so that they are not working to the point of being burnt out by the end of the fire year is very important. We are very focused on work–life balance and building resilience into our workforce,” he concluded.