Rising to the challenge of more frequent wildfires
Amy Gallagher reports on how aerial firefighters are rising to the challenge of increased wildland fires in the US by the introduction of innovative solutions and transforming military-grade aircraft into firefighting weapons
Underlying the many causes of wildland fires such as unextinguished campfires and cigarettes, the US Department of Interior (DOI) states that 90 per cent of fires are accidental (i.e. unextinguished campfires and cigarettes) caused by humans.
Among the more controversial causes is the increasing populations in the wildland urban interface (WUI) – defined as when houses are built close to forests or other types of natural vegetation. The US Forest Services (USFS) tracked changes from 1990–2010 of the nation’s WUI areas, revealing an expansion of more than 46 million acres, increasing risks for lost lives and land.
The USFS declared war on forest fires shortly after the Great Fire of 1910 that burned 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana, taking the lives of 85 people. Fast forward 112 years and the US is still fighting the same war, and the battles are exponentially more destructive and deadly.
Rising up to meet the challenges of increased wildland fires, several US corporations continue to develop innovative solutions and technological modifications to transform military grade aircraft into firefighting weapons – like the US Army’s Sikorsky UH 60M Black Hawk, developed in the 1970s and modified as the S-70 Firehawk, as well as the Lockheed C-130 Hercules (C-130H) deployed by the US Air Force for firefighting missions in the 1970s and lately modified as the LM-100J FireHerc.
While the war rages on, the US is redefining the fight with repurposed assets. The nation is winning in the area of increasing advanced technological capabilities across its firefighting sector.
Firefighters can be prone to symptoms similar to combat fatigue when tackling wildfires
Wildland fires continue to pose unique challenges requiring vastly different approaches in prevention, mitigation and suppression. While the cost of lost lives is not measurable, operators are closely monitoring firefighters and the war-like symptom known as combat fatigue – the increasing burn-out inflicting those on the frontline.
“Burn-out and fatigue are big factors in managing our most important assets, our firefighters,” said Darren Wilkins, Chief Operating Officer, Bridger Aerospace, who served 20 years in Naval Aviation. “We keep an eye on our crews to ensure a rotation schedule that ideally minimizes fatigue and the historic nature of the firefighting mission, burn-out.”
Launched in 2014, Bridger Aerospace contracts with the USFS-DOI, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). One of the company’s most powerful weapons is the Viking CL-415EAF Super Scooper, known by some as ‘The Original Firefighter’.
“Our Super Scoopers are modified with advanced hydraulics and the technological capabilities to hover up to seven hours, an upgrade by three hours,” said Chief Executive Officer Tim Sheehy, a former US Navy SEAL. “We have four in operation with plans to add two more this year.”
“The Super Scooper can dispense up to 100,000 gallons of water or retardant in a four-hour period,” commented Sheehy. “No other aircraft can do that.”
Transforming the Hercules into a 'FireHerc'
The modified C-130 functioning as an aerial firefighting tanker reconfigured as the Lockheed Martin LM-100J FireHerc, is redefining the fight as one of the most powerful weapons in the US war chest. With a background in supporting the C-130 military firefighting mission, Lockheed Martin’s aerial firefighting expert and Lead Engineering Support, MAFFS II Design and Installation Process, Richard Cree said: “We had an integrated team of engineers and C-130 experts familiar with the mission, to leverage the best minds and experience across the company in developing the FireHerc platform.”
“Our overall intent is for the C-130 to support our operators in meeting mission requirements, including night operations,” reported Jeff Fortner, Program Manager, LM-100J/FireHerc. “The C-130s currently supporting firefighting efforts are critical resources and we believe the FireHerc would offer our operators another proven resource to battle wildfires. Also important to this equation is our partnerships with industry experts and suppliers supporting these systems,” he said.
“During development, we partnered with the USFS and the USAF to ensure the C-130 (C-130H and C-130J Super Hercules) was safe to conduct operations with the Modular Aerial Firefighting System II (MAFFS), a ‘roll-on, roll-off’ retardant delivery system ‘rolled’ onto the C-130 aerial tanker without structural modifications,” said Cree.
Responding to growing demand with a larger, more diversified fleet
The greatest assets to manage year-round wildland fires are demanding a diversified fleet of aerial assets, such as those at Canada's Coulson Aviation.
“As we looked at the potential solutions to transport passengers and fight fires, we turned to modified C-130s and modified the Boeing 737,” said Britt Coulson, Vice President for Coulson Aviation.
In 2011, the company purchased the first of its six C-130H aircraft and began its airtanker conversion process. “Our ‘Tanker 131’ was born with the installation of a Coulson RADS-XXL 4,000-gallon internal gravity-powered retardant tank,” he said. “These tanks consist of a roll-on/roll-off upper tank, which allows the aircraft to be converted to and from a standard cargo configuration within hours.”
The Coulson Retardant Aerial Delivery System (RADS) is a gravity drop retardant delivery system with a capacity for up to 4,000 gallons of retardant in one dispersion, representing the ‘next generation of aerial firefighting technology’, he said.
“Developed in-house, the RADS is currently installed and operating on Coulson’s Boeing 737s, Lockheed C-130s, and Boeing CH-47D HeliTankers with excellent success,” said Coulson.
Established in 1960, today Coulson Aviation is the only Type 1 fixed and rotary wing operator in the world and the only helicopter operator to receive approval to move crews, up to 18 firefighters at once, in the US, Canada and Australia. The company also operates a fleet of UH-60s (S-61) and CH-47 HeliTankers, with the newest addition to the firm’s fleet – the Boeing 737 modified as the 737 FireLiner – making Coulson Aviation the first company in the world to convert Boeing’s 737 commercial airliners into firefighting air tankers.
“We are just finishing our third FireLiner, with three more lined up to modify, each taking 43,000 technician hours to become fully compliant and operational,” he said.
Pairing aircraft to meet the ‘low and slow’ with the need for speed adds another dimension to strategic solutions for aerial firefighting. “The C130 and the Boeing 737 complement each other with the interchanging capabilities based on the customer’s needs, and are sold at a flat rate at the same price with similar operating costs,” said Coulson. “Now we have solutions to fly faster and higher with the 737, with the low and slow of the C-130.”
The power of planning and pretreatment in preventing forest fires
As large air tankers continue to disperse retardants to prevent flames from destroying more land and lives, the composition and production of high-tech fire-retardant solutions, generated by evidence-based research that meet environmental requirements, requires extensive planning to ensure efficiency.
"When there is planning, there is the power of retardant solutions to deliver protection and pretreatment for prevention,” said the CEO of Perimeter Solutions, Edward Goldberg, who added that the company’s research and development arm continually analyzes chemistries to identify solutions that increase effectiveness and safety.
“The company’s PHOS-CHEK FORTIFY solution is a clear version of the retardant that prevents wildfire ignitions while protecting property and people. Aerial dispersions of PHOS-CHEK are colored red to enhance its visibility to pilots so they know where to drop the retardant, as well as preventing any breaks in the fire lines created,” he announced.
“The ultra-high visibility [of aerial retardant] allows the drops to maintain the color after weeks of sunlight,” declared Goldberg. “Even after it rains, it’s still effective.”
Increased demand calls for greater efficiency in time usage
With the increased demand for aerial assets, notably in the western states, the S-70 Firehawk helicopter is an answer to the challenges faced by agencies such as Los Angeles County Fire Department and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), said Brad Schneider, Regional Manager, United Rotorcraft, an Air Methods Corporation, who added that CAL FIRE is taking delivery of 12 Firehawk aircraft, two for Ventura County operations, with one Firehawk for Santa Barbara County.
“The Firehawk can ‘snorkel’ water with the option to use the autopilot hover mode,” announced Schneider. “Safety is built into the design with an integrated ‘wire strike’ system and enhanced avionics system.”
The tank also offers the ability to ‘ground-fill’ which offers the chance to refuel human energy levels while saving time as well.
“With a computer-controlled tank refilling at 1,000 gallons in 50 seconds, the crews can take a breather before heading back to the fight where they can drop 1,000 gallons in under five seconds,” he said. “The uniform water system with a unique retractable snorkel housed in the tank’s belly features an emergency dump that drops the water in three seconds, providing more efficient ground coverage.”
“Although the external tank is made of metal,” revealed Schneider, “a new composite tank is in development. The new tank will be lighter to enhance performance when flying the ‘high-hot’ conditions, and will allow operators to take on more water.”
The Firehawk can travel at speeds of up to 150kts, another timesaver. “It’s a very impressive platform,” stated Schneider. “There’s nothing else like it in its class.”
The cost? “About US$24 million,” he disclosed. In perspective, Schneider explained that the estimated insurance losses of the Colorado Black Forest fire in 2013 was $465 million.
Schneider said United Rotorcraft continues to make improvements to better mitigate expenses for operators looking to add new systems. “We are planning future systems that don’t require a re-work of the airframe or interior configurations,” he said.
US policies on wildfires call for the suppression of all fires over ten acres in size
In 1926, the USFS adopted a policy allowing areas of ‘ten acres or less’ to burn, but required the suppression of all fires over ten acres. Today, this policy is referred to as the State Responsibility Area (SRA), which serves as a goal for CAL FIRE crews.
“Each year we’ve been able to achieve ‘ten acres or less’; however, within the past several years, fires have started quickly then grown to large devastating fires, surpassing the goal,” reported Brian Renner, Division Chief, CAL FIRE Tactical Air Operations. During 2021, CAL FIRE logged 485 missions for a total of 80.2 flight hours in support of three different fires in California (Dixie, Caldor and River incidents), said Renner.
CAL FIRE aerial assets include: 23 S-2T Type II Air Tankers, 16 OV-10 Air Attacks and 2 King Air A200CT fixed-wing aircraft for aerial supervision, 6 Type I S-70 CAL FIRE Hawks, and 12 Type II UH-1H Huey helicopters.
“Each aircraft performs a specific role from aerial supervision to providing water and/or retardant firefighting support, aerial reconnaissance, crew transport, and vegetation management,” commented Renner, who said the State of California has acquired a total of 12 S-70 CAL FIRE Hawks with a proposed fleet delivery by Fall 2022.
Advanced communications generate greater efficiency, allowing firefighters to send and receive critical information with greater ease, notably for night operations. “CAL FIRE conducts multiple types of night-time air operations with fixed wing intelligence and reconnaissance missions providing the fire’s location, perimeter, and progression that is digitally transferred to fire commanders,” said Renner, adding that 75 per cent of the 2021 missions were conducted at night when airspace is less congested, and the sensor technology excelled as the night-time temperatures decrease.
Flying a sensor payload consists of a visual optical and/or infrared camera. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) pilots supplement the intelligence provided by manned aviation, while companies are increasing the reliability, battery life, infrared technology, and carrying capacity of UAS.
Each CAL FIRE Hawk is equipped with two integrated multi-band UHF/VHF-AM and two VHF-FM radio packages, with additional capability to install a third VHF-FM auxiliary transmitter/receiver. Furthermore, the CAL FIRE Hawk has an integrated FlightCell control head that provides satellite and cellular communication, as well as an internal communications system (ICS).
An intangible asset for all
With the commercial sector as well as federal and state agencies recognizing the demand signal for increased firefighting assets, the fire ‘season’ is now a 24/7, 365-day operation.
All of the technological assets in the world can’t fix the increasing human population with the subsequent increases in accidents and incidents of negligent behavior. The most important asset? Education.
“What is needed for the future is fire education and fire prevention, which is the responsibility of all residents,” said Renner. One example is vegetation management projects that keep fires small and manageable. “We all need to practice fire safety because one less spark means one less fire,” he observed. “Fires never have a chance to get big if they do not start.”