July 17, 2012 Leave a comment
by Tony Morris
With 1000 homes destroyed by recent wildfires in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado there is a need to examine Aerial Firefighting strategies. For the past 40 plus years Incident Commanders in charge of fighting wildfires have deployed firefighting aircraft to build lines of long term retardant (LTR). Waiting for the wildfire burn up to the dry chemical line and slow the fire. This is how firefighters “Attempt to slow a fire” along with contain the fire with Bulldozers and Hand Crews. However, per the USFS, retardant slurry is NOT effective or recommended for directly attacking the flames or the Head of a Wildfire.
WE NEED TO REVIEW AND UPDATE AERIAL FIREFIGHTING STRATEGIES
With devastating wildfires and Mega Fires threatening more Wildland Urban Interface communities throughout the country there is a strong need to review and update Aerial Firefighting Strategies. One of those updates should be utilizing Direct Attack combined with a fire suppressant Gel from all Aircraft types not just SEATS and Helicopters. According to numerous firefighting chemical experts the U.S. Forest Service has approved nine separate fire suppressant Gels which are listed on the USFS Qualified Products List or (QPL). They were all tested for 2 years at a cost of more than $100, 000 each before being approved for use in fighting wildfires. These Gels have been available for use for decades but underutilized and even ignored. One major reason is the USFS refuses to approve the Gels for use in fixed wing Large Air Tankers (LATs) or Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs). The Gels have been used in fixed wing SEAT (Single Engine Air Tankers) aircraft and Helicopters on BLM, BIA and by eight progressive State Forestry Agencies for years, on a large variety of fuel types.
There should be a Universal colorant used in all Gels such as blue fugitive so all who see the drop know if it is Gel or Retardant. The fugitive dyes quickly disappear after exposure to UV light. Long Term Retardant is colored Red or Orange using Iron Oxide, Rust or Fugitive Dye.
Next they need to fully embrace the use and seriously integrate the (VLAT’s) into most large Incidents by providing them with an Exclusive Use Contract so they can do so. VLAT’s such as Tanker 910 and 911 which are converted DC-10’s with a capacity of 11,600 gallons. With each drop they create a line of Retardant or Gel 50 feet wide and 3,300 Feet long (or 5/8 of a mile long) in one pass. It takes (10) Grumman S2-Ts and (4) P-3 Orions to build an equivalent line. In 2006, soon after 10 Tanker Air Carrier, owner-operator of Tanker 910 and 911, were awarded an Exclusive Use Contract by CAL FIRE and used by the USFS. Wildfire Research Network (WRN) a non-profit research foundation based in Los Angeles, inquired why the DC-10s were not used more and permitted to drop Gels using Direct Attack and has not been given very good answers.
The use of long term retardant or better known as Phos-Chek has been used to “build line” to contain fires for decades but it is not done at the Head of the Fires it is dropped at the nearest ridge top and allowed to dry, that’s when it is supposedly most effective. The use of In-direct Attack is more of a defensive posture designed to again slow a wildfire. Containment is critical, but by utilizing half your aircraft assets in Direct Attack tactics with the use of Gel is more of an offensive strategy. The purpose of Direct Attack is to put the fire out or significantly cool and slow the fires advance. The use of Gels like Thermo-Gel, Aqua Gel-K and FireIce, provides another effective tool for Incident Commanders, Air Bosses and firefighting pilots to attack wildfires. There is a big misunderstanding about Gels, and that is you can’t “build line” with them. The truth is you can build and effective line with some of the Gels, but it is done on or just in front of the advancing flames, some gels like FireIce are specifically designed for this purpose in addition to their suppressant qualities . CAL FIRE has used the Direct Attack tactic of a 50 / 50 drop. The intent is to extinguish the flames and leave enough of a Control Line of Gel on the unburned fuel to inhibit re-ignition. The SEAT Pilots have been doing this type of drop for many years with much success. The Canadian Forest Service has actively tested and embraced the use of Gels. In 2009 in just the British Columbia Province well over 2,000,000 gallons of Gels were dropped from Helicopters. The Canadian Forest Service has also tested and approved the Martin Mars (VLAT) to drop Gel directly on the homes threaten by the flames at certain altitudes. The 7,200 gallon capacity Martin Mars has dropped Millions of gallons of Gel on fires with much success.
GELS USED SUCCESSFULLY IN THIS YEAR’S NEW MEXICO WILDFIRES
FireIce, a water enhancing fire suppressant Gel which took its inventor Peter Cordani ten years to develop, was recently used to protect the Jicarilla Apache Nation Indian Reservation at Dulce, and control the Romero wildfire near Corrales New Mexico from becoming larger wildfires.
Elizabeth Dick, Manger of Air Tankers for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, reports that Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATS) dropping FireIce were able to knock down the wildfire in record time using FireIce.
Jay Martinak, former Flight Operations Director for CAL FIRE and a veteran rotary and fixed wing pilot for CAL FIRE , the state of California’s firefighting agency, said he believes “industry will have to look more favorably on Direct Attack which is more hands on. We should not be limited to Indirect Attack with long term retardant. The difficulty is that we are still doing it the way we have for 30 to 40 years with Indirect Attack. Incident Commanders may not be familiar enough to use Direct Attack.”
GELS ADDRESS ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS
Using long term retardant has given rise to environmental concerns, as aquatic life can be harmed should fire retardant chemicals be dropped into lakes, streams or rivers during aerial firefighting sorties. Federal lawsuits filed in 2003 and another in 2008 complained of the toxicity of the Retardant and a massive fish kill in Oregon. Recent aerial firefighting regulations require pilots to drop no closer than 300 feet from riparian locations. Using the non-toxic fire suppressant Gels would provide an extra margin of safety with regard to potential environmental damage. Gels degrades with exposure to UV and fall to the ground and then it aids the soil in retaining moisture in the future.
With the seven Large Air Tankers taken off line by the USFS, and the two unfortunate crashes recently, it has severely depleted the Large Tanker fleet. It’s critical that the VLATs be called into service with an Exclusive Use Contract at least for this year and next to make up for the significant 27,000 gallon payload deficiency these 9 lost aircraft represent. Some say they are too expensive to operate. But we ask, what has been the cost of homes burned down, neighborhoods & residents devastated and lives lost because they weren’t used?
We propose that Incident Commanders be allowed to use Large Air Tankers (LATs) or Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs) in both Containment and Direct Attack operations. The USFS should remove all the restrictions of using the Gels in the larger fixed wing aircraft immediately. With the increasing costs of fighting Wildland Fires being such a large concern, the average cost of a mixed gallon of Gel is 50% to 65% percent less expensive than a mixed gallon of Retardant! More than 20 million gallons of Retardant is mixed each year. From a cost perspective alone the obvious choice for the USFS is to adopt more Direct Attack and use of Gels in all aircraft types. Pilots also appreciate that most Gels weigh the same as water which is significantly less than slurry. This makes it safer during take- off and a added benefit is the aircraft burns less fuel as the payload is lighter.
Firefighters both in the air and on the ground need the use of all the tools available to help them save lives and property.
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