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Initial Attack

January 25, 2011  By Ken Armstrong

The steep, rugged, densely forested slopes of the B.C. coastline have always created unique challenges for forest fire suppression operations.

The steep, rugged, densely forested slopes of the B.C. coastline have always created unique challenges for forest fire suppression operations. The heavy forests and ground debris buildup provide fuel for hot fires and the steep slopes accelerate the spread, as flames love to run uphill. In an effort to combat these challenges head on, the Coast Fire Centre of BC Forest Service (BCFS) in Parksville, B.C., has developed an enhanced initial attack (IA) program using a Coulson S-61 heavy lift helicopter on a trial basis. The higher hitting force of a big machine has more capability of beating the fire down before it gets enough “traction” to overwhelm suppression efforts. With the additional capabilities of these heavy lift machines, the centre hopes to reduce costs and improve safety in addition to improving the success of combating fires. Helicopters correspondent Ken Armstrong recently attended a training/testing trial and witnessed firsthand the interfacing between the BCFS crews and helicopter personnel, leading to the overall success of these initial attack operations.    -Ed.

The Coulson S-61 heavy lift helicopter has the power and capacity to be an effective fire suppression tool.


Standard Initial Attack Scenario

Thousands of fires have taught suppression agencies that stomping on a fire quickly while it is small avoids the sprawling and costly project fires that gobble up thousands of hectares and millions of taxpayers’ dollars. The standard IA philosophy utilizes a helicopter and BCFS crew on heightened alert for immediate dispatch during periods of high fire risk/probability. As soon as smoke is detected, they are launched with minimal provisioning and all the equipment necessary to quickly contain a small fire in its infancy. Typically, the medium helicopter also carries a bucket or tank of approximately 1,200 litres to aid in initial suppression to ensure the fire doesn’t start to rage out of control; however, the weight of the internal load precludes the machine filling its fuel tank(s) and the helicopter often has to retreat in the heat of the battle to refuel.

Typically, IA operations utilize a medium helicopter such as a Bell 212 and a BCFS crew of three with a small pump, hose, personal gear, fire suppression support equipment and supplies. After launching, the crew uses GPS and other means to arrive at the fire, where it circles to conduct scene reconnaissance. Considerations include: potential landing areas and fire data (fuel types, terrain, size, water availability, etc.) – all of which is relayed to the fire centre. During the fire assessment in the coast’s challenging conditions, it is often apparent that the committed assets are not adequate for the ensuing battle and a delay ensues while other resources are put in place to aid in the suppression. (Several famous fires have got away from organizations when the wait for backup allowed the fire to gain a foothold that overwhelmed the ability of agency assets to suppress it). When this occurs, the cost associated in fighting these fires escalates dramatically – not to mention the potential loss of homes and other property. To avoid this scenario, a large helicopter with the ability to carry more firefighters, increased suppression gear and a larger “bucketing” capability could prove decisive in many fires.

A crew from the Coast Fire Centre of BC Forest Service discusses details of an enhanced initial attack program.


Enhanced Initial Attack Scenario
The Coulson S-61, with two 1600 shaft horsepower engines, provides a heavy lift solution, and the proprietary belly tank system of 4,000 litres packs a punch when dropping water and foam loads on flaming fire fronts. The heavy helicopter’s additional capacity essentially allows doubling up of loads with two three-person crews and all of their standard equipment. On its own, this double whammy multiplies the effective suppressive effect exponentially. Additionally, a large fuel pump and kit along with an additional 2,500 feet of hose augments capabilities. The higher output pressure and volume of the big pump enhances water flows in the vertical terrain associated with the coast given that it is usually necessary to pump uphill from low level water sources and the standard small pump only creates a trickle after pushing water up steep slopes. Added to the equipment load are two water tanks, including a collapsible 1500-gallon relay tank and a slingable Stillwell water tank – which can be used for crew water and firefighting tasks. In addition to standard IA loads, items such as a chainsaw kit, extra fuel for the pumps, drinking water and overnight gear including sleeping bags, shelters and clothes, can be accommodated. Because the coastal fires tend to be deep-rooted and harder to extinguish, the extra equipment allows the crew to stay on site for a longer period to ensure the fire is controlled and unable to spread.

The Helicopter

For the trial, Coulson provided helicopter C-GBSF (previously used as a shuttle along with the Helijet fleet of S-76s on the Victoria-to-Vancouver scheduled airline helicopter service. The financial downturn terminated those ops and the company then removed the executive interior to provide a utility helicopter for the IA role). With an empty weight of approximately 12,000 pounds and an internal gross of 20,500 pounds, the machine can easily lift the eight occupants, crew equipment and the full 2,160-litre fuel load. With a cruising fuel flow of approximately 670 litres per hour, the Sikorsky has a three-hour endurance, roughly twice that of the medium IA helicopters. The heavy also has other benefits with twin-engine redundancy, large cabin volume and pressurized hot refuelling capability that can provide very fast turnaround times during operations.

The Fire Suppression Crews

In my experience, the BCFS Initial Attack crews are among the best in the world and are broadly trained for all suppression operations. A world leader, the organization has long been aware of the immense importance of a successful IA program and has often been sought after for its training programs. Bob Keen of the Parksville, B.C., Coastal Fire Centre was in charge of the helicopter crew training in the field and the co-operation between helicopter and suppression crews and exchange of ideas was first rate.

A Trial Program

Why is the program a trial? With any change in fire suppression techniques, the pros and cons must be weighed to determine the effectiveness of the program. The benefits of the heavy helicopter’s use have been outlined above; however, on the flip side, forestry personnel have also voiced concerns about its use. In the densely forested areas of the coast, landing areas are few and far between and with a rotor diameter of 62 feet on the Sikorsky compared to a medium Bell 205 with 48 feet, there are some areas that will prove challenging to fit the heavy. (However, the S-61’s rotor systems are higher off the ground and that will aid with clearance in scrub bush areas.) Another concern is the Sikorsky’s wheel undercarriage, which would be more prone to damage than a skid gear in rugged terrain and, of course, tires wouldn’t be very adaptable to current forestry log landing pads (not that they would be using existing pads very often for IA). This issue may be largely mitigated since the helicopter and suppression crews have been practising hover planning and deplaning from the ladder-style front steps.

The Coulson S-61 can easily lift a crew of eight, equipment and a full 2,160-litre fuel load.


One of the first things the firefighters accomplish on deplaning is to attach the snorkel for the Coulson belly tank suppression system. This setup does not allow for sling loads; however, the aircrew advised me that the belly tank could be removed in approximately 30 minutes and the helicopter then rigged for sling loads. One wouldn’t foresee this being a significant issue for the specific IA role, as the primary missions are: 1) to deliver the firefighters and equipment to the incident and 2) to suppress the fire with the belly tank as long as possible to ensure the fire doesn’t “get away” while the ground crews are setting up equipment to run their fire line hose around the perimeter of the fire.

Generally, with mediums, the partial fuel load during IA dispatch (necessary to allow the helicopter to carry the crew and equipment) has only allowed the helicopter roughly a half hour of bucketing time before it has to ferry back to base for fuel. In the case of the Sikorsky, carrying a full fuel load can double the time on the fire and greatly increase the likelihood of successfully containing and controlling the fire. This is further augmented by carrying twice as many firefighters and more extensive suppression equipment. Conquests in the coastal forest areas could lead to wider usage of heavier helicopters elsewhere as more and more forestry agencies realize the importance of a successful initial attack. Look for this program to be successful and perhaps even spread like wildfire to some of the other provinces.

Kenneth Armstrong has flown dozens of helicopter types (including S-61 variants with the U.S. navy in Hawaii and Malaysian armed forces) teaching advanced aerial fire suppression techniques in many countries since 1991 and loves battling blazes.


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