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Taming the Firestorm

May 4, 2010  By Paul Dixon

The 2009 fire season in British Columbia was certainly one to remember – for all the wrong reasons. Some 3,040 wildfires consumed more than 250,000 hectares at a direct firefighting cost of $397 million. To put that into context, the 10-year average in B.C. from 1998 to 2007 was 1,848 fires at a cost of $115.9 million.

The 2009 fire season in British Columbia was certainly one to remember – for all the wrong reasons. Some 3,040 wildfires consumed more than 250,000 hectares at a direct firefighting cost of $397 million. To put that into context, the 10-year average in B.C. from 1998 to 2007 was 1,848 fires at a cost of $115.9 million.

Black Tusk Helicopters Inc. pilot Wade Young guides his Bell 214B towards a fire at Tyaughton Lake, northwest of Lillooet, B.C., last summer. (Photo courtesy of Steve Underwood, AME, Black Tusk Helicopters)

How bad did it get in 2009? At the peak of the fire season in July, 400 new fire starts were recorded over a three-day period. Some 257 helicopters were employed on firefighting missions, logging more than 57,000 hours. More than 2,500 personnel were brought in from across Canada and the United States, including 1,800 firefighters, as well as crews from Australia and New Zealand. It marked the first time in the history of the B.C. Forest Service that aerial firefighting operations were being conducted simultaneously in all six zones across the province. It was also the worst firefighting season on record, surpassing 2003 when 2,473 fires consumed 265,053 hectares at a cost of $371.2 million.

In preparation for yet another challenging fire season in B.C. – and across the country for that matter – delegates from Canada, the United States and from as far away as Russia, Lebanon, Japan and Greece shared strategies and potential solutions at the recent Aerial Firefighting Conference in Richmond, B.C. The fast-paced, two-day event in late March produced top-level presentations aimed at those in the line of fire on the strategic and tactical side of the aerial firefighting equation.


Multiple Challenges
Keynote speaker Brian Simpson, director of the B.C. wildfire management branch, kicked things off by outlining several strategic changes in B.C.’s fire management since Firestorm 2003, while reflecting on 2009, and looked ahead to the coming year.

A Bell 214B C-GTWV  from Transwest Helicopters Ltd. takes part in fighting a fire in Nakusp, B.C. (Photo courtesy of Bill Campbell)

With a water source just 100 yards away, an aerial attack from a Great Slave Helicopters Ltd. AStar 350 was ideal for a nearby fire in Hay River, N.W.T.

British Columbia has a wider range of climates and forest types than the rest of Canada, noted Simpson, from the desert of the southern Okanagan Valley, temperate rain forest of Vancouver Island and the coast to the boreal forest of the north. Coupled with some of the most challenging terrain in the world and the vast distances involved, it presents a challenging environment for aerial firefighters.

In the late 1990s, the province centralized aerial resources under one central province-wide command. Prior to that, aerial resources were allocated to each of the six regions and placed under the command of the regional managers. The result? Aircraft were sitting on the ground in one region while fires raged on the other side of the province. At the time, regional managers were also reluctant to release their air resources to another region. Now, all aerial resources are controlled from the one centre, co-located with the coastal region fire centre outside Parksville, on Vancouver Island. Automatic Flight Following (AFF) is mandatory on all aircraft contracted to the province.

The province of British Columbia does not own any of the aircraft used in firefighting operations, but works with contracted resources. Jeff Barry, aviation manager for B.C.’s Wildfire Management Branch, explained how measuring the performance of aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary wing, has helped the province improved its aerial firefighting readiness. British Columbia has set a goal of keeping 95 per cent of all fires under four hectares. Achieving this means rapid deployment of the most appropriate resources, or, as Barry says, “you have to relate the assets to the event.” In most parts of the province, this could mean a medium helicopter delivering a three-person initial attack crew to a new fire and then providing immediate support by bucketing from the nearest source of water. At the same time, fixed-wing resources are dispatched from the nearest tanker base, with the intent that enough resources be deployed as quickly as possible in order to knock the fire down before it can spread.

Lightning Quick Decisions
Improving fire-related performance also means getting aircraft in the air as quickly as possible for the initial attack and maximizing time on the fire. This means moving fuel and other resources as close to the fire as possible, to minimize time away from the task. Steve Newton, superintendent of aviation management for the B.C. Wildfire Branch, puts it very simply: “the closer you move the fuel to the fire, the more water you’ll get on the fire.” In order to simplify the fuel delivery process, B.C. is contracting only turbine-powered aircraft, so there is only one fuel type required for aviation across the province.

Contrast this with the situation in Russia and Greece, where a lack of strategic planning and overall control has a direct impact on the firefighting response. Andrey Eritsov, deputy manager of the Moscow region of the Federal Forest Agency of Russia, was a front-line smokejumper for more than 10 years. Last year, 25,000 fires in Russia burned through more than 2.5 million hectares of forest. Contrary to evolving strategies in Canada, Australia and the United States, Russia has devolved its previous central control of personnel and resources to autonomous regional zones, with no sharing of resources across zone boundaries and little sharing of information.

In Greece, as reported by Dr. Gavriil Xanthopoulos, professional forester with Natural Resources Technologies of Greece, the situation is a lack of balance between ground resources and aerial resources. Planes and helicopters make spectacular media splashes and seize the public imagination. The result in Greece is that the government has invested millions of dollars in purchasing aircraft and neglected ground resources. Coupled with this is a lack of adequate direction, deployment and coordination of the resources at hand. Dr. Xanthopoulos makes the case that co-ordinating aerial and ground resources as done in Canada and the United States is more effective in fighting fires, as well as being more cost efficient.

In both Russia and Greece, there is no centralized, strategic leadership and no incident command system (ICS). In her presentation on Pilot Competencies for Helicopter Wildfire Operations, Terry Northcott pointed out that ICS is now on the list of industry best practices in HAC’s new Competencies for Wildfire Operations. The ability to move aircraft and pilots across the country on short notice as needs dictate gives great flexibility. Last year, when B.C. had more than 3,000 fires, Ontario had one of the quietest seasons on record with 384 fires. As a result, Ontario was able to dispatch more than 1,000 firefighters and aerial crew to B.C. When all agencies and personnel use ICS, it means everyone is speaking the same language and on the same page every step of the way.

Hot Technology
Battalion Chief Anthony Marrone, chief of Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Air Operations unit, gave an overview of the L.A. County experience and Thomas Scott, its chief pilot, shared how the LACFD’s use of Night Vision Goggles (NVG) has helped stamp out fires in their city. L.A. County operates its own fleet of helicopters: three Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks, four Bell 412s and a Bell 206 JetRanger. During fire season, the department will add two and sometimes three S-64 Skycranes on contract. The Firehawks are equipped with a 1,000-gallon water tank that uses a “constant flow” delivery system as compared to the “two-door,” 360-gallon “L.A. County” tank on the medium category Bell 412. The Bell 206 is used for command, mapping, FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared), photography and HELCO (Helicopter Coordinator) duties for all major wildfires.

The fire season in British Columbia last year was the worst on record, prompting more birds to work the skies. Here, a Bell 212 C-GLFT from Valhalla Helicopters Inc. fuels up near Kelowna to fight the Terrace Mountain fire.  (Photo courtesy of Sam Lafferma)

In the spring of 2001, L.A. County pilots adopted aided lighting systems in the form of Night Vision Goggles (NVGs). All of the crews have access to this technology and the increase in night operations through their use has skyrocketed in the last four years. Crews are now able to see night hazards such as unlit towers, power-lines, mountainous terrain, lakes, and streams. This allows crews to fly air ops 24/7 during peak fire times. During daylight hours, county helicopters reload by snorkelling from available water sources, while at night they land to reload, as a safety precaution.

The 24/7 flight operations in Southern California reflects the incredible pressure firefighters there operate under given the large number of interface fires and seemingly never ending threat to communities. In Canada, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources has two helicopters committed for NVG operation, but they are used in support ops, fire spotting and on the enforcement side.

Perception Versus Reality
While tactical and strategic applications were a unifying thread throughout the conference, other sessions offered important points. Dr. Xanthopoulos’ exploration of the media’s influence on public perception and potentially even government policy were echoed by Scott, who said the media presence leaves one feeling as though one is constantly under a microscope. It is not unusual, he said, to have more media helicopters than firefighting aircraft in the air over a fire.

Dr. Jerome Yesavage of Stanford Medical School offered his findings on the capabilities of aging pilots. Generally speaking, performance diminishes with age, said Yesavage. Younger pilots are quicker whereas older pilots are more experienced. At some point in a pilot’s career, the level of experience will no longer compensate for lost youth; that is a tradeoff we have to be aware of and what the actual point is varies with every pilot.

Jim Messer, chief operating officer of the Coulson Group of Companies, discussed performance, assessment and accountability. Coulson utilizes a S-76B as the birddog for the Martin Mars waterbomber equipped with infrared and high-definition cameras that provide real-time video of the fires the water bomber is attacking. It provides need-to-know information in real time. Coupled with accurate load gauges in the Martin Mars and GPS technology, Coulson can deliver accurate information such as how much water was dropped on the fire and exactly where it was dropped.

A Hazy Horizon?
As Simpson stated in his opening remarks, one of the main challenges facing aerial firefighters today is achieving operational effectiveness while maintaining cost effectiveness. It is beyond cliché to talk about “doing more with less” but this is the fiscal reality we live in. Simpson says that in B.C., $397 million a year is simply not sustainable. This is not an economics model; this is reality as big and as bad as it gets. With the winter of 2009/2010 the driest and warmest on record across the country, one wonders how much worse it can get.

Fanning the flames with a brand new arsenal
With the possibility of another busy fire season in 2010, aerial units nationwide are primed to employ new technologies to keep fires at bay. Here’s a look at how some hot new products are being used to help douse the flames.

Perfect Mix
Calgary, Alta.-based Absolute Fire Solutions (AFS) and Thermo Technologies of Bismark, N.D., have created the FAST Gel Initial Attack bucket injection system – a helicopter water bucket that incorporates a gel mixing system. Built with an electric pump in the bottom, the Initial Attack bucket can be filled from a water source that is only 12 inches deep. It eliminates the need to wait for large tankers and reservoirs, enabling fire agencies to apply the highly effective Thermo-Gel retardant much earlier in the fire suppression cycle. AFS designed the injection system to ensure quick and simple FAST Bucket cleanup, using a reservoir similar to the FAST Foam bag. As a result, operators may choose Thermo-Gel, water, or conventional foam retardant, depending on firefighting need. www.absolutefire.ca .

On the FAST Track
Erickson Air Crane is expanding the adaptability of its aircraft by adopting AFS’ FASTTrack water usage system. It’s a move that will be a boon to operators in the midst of fighting the most stubborn of fires. The new technology offers real-time, web-viewable data recording and transmission capability for the quantity of water, foam mix, or retardant delivered to specific locations during firefighting operations. In Canada, Canadian Air-Crane operates Erickson S-64E and S-64F Aircranes. www.ericksonaircrane.com , www.air-crane.com

The Eyes Have It
River City Choppers, a Langley, B.C.-based company is the authorized distributor for the FLIR EVS3 Enhanced vision system. At just 2.9 pounds plus the display, the EVS3 is designed for the commercial operator to provide enhanced vision in both daylight and low or no light conditions. The EVS3 can see through smoke and haze to help provide safer more accurate targeting of retardants or water. River City is testing the camera system on the EC-120, AS-350/355, Bell 205A1, and the Bell 212. The upcoming fire season will also see the camera in operation on CL415 tankers in Ontario. Other users include Air Medical AS-350 operators in California. www.rivercitychoppers.ca


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