Battling Fires and Budgets With Techniques, Technology

By By R&WI Staff with Joseph Ambrogne, Wim Das and Kees Otten | April 1, 2016


An AS532 Cougar with the Royal Netherlands Air Force works to extinguish a fire during a training exercise in the Netherlands. Photo by Wim Das

Unpredictability is a fact of life in fighting wildland fires. The number and scope of fires in any given year depend on many variables, from snowpack, seasonal winds and rainfall to the amount of dead wood on the ground and the sites and scope of past years’ fires (or the lack thereof).

Another variable is the threat that a wild fire may pose to humans—a growing concern as residential developments encroach more and more on wildland. The sight that seems more common each fire season is a helicopter dropping retardant alongside homes in the cul-de-sac of a new housing development as residents vainly cool smoldering roofs with garden hoses.


Unpredictability comes into play even more with large fires, which can create mini-climate zones with their own system of whipping, shifting winds that can threaten crews in the air and on the ground alike.

Add to that the tumult of political, budgetary and policy battles at all levels of government, and it becomes clear that officials who fight wild fire attacks and the operators and vendors that support them have many challenges before them.

Acres Burned

The unpredictability of wildland firefighting can be illustrated by the recent record of wild fires.

In the U.S., for instance, the number of fires and the total area burned in the last 10 years has varied. In some cases, those numbers have varied wildly. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there were 68,151 wild fires that burned more than 10.1 million acres (about 4.1 million hectares) in 2015. Both marked increases from 2014. Fires were up 7.6%, but acres burned vaulted up 181.6%.

Some are quick to seize on that huge increase and argue that it and the number of acres (which was a record high) as evidence of global trends like climate change.

But the center’s numbers show that 9.8 million acres burned in 2006 and 9.3 million acres burned in both 2007 and 2012. While last year’s percentage was substantial, it is worth noting that 2014’s acres burned totaled about 3.6 million. (The annual average for the last 10 years is 7 million, and the median is 7.3 million.)

There was a 154.5% increase in acres burned in 2011, to 8.7 million acres, but 2010’s burn totaled 3.4 million acres.

In the last 10 years, the annual percentage increase in acres burned has ranged from last year’s jump of 181.6% to minus 53.7% (in 2013), and the average for the period is 20.7%.

The average annual increase in the number of U.S. wild fires in the last 10 years has spanned from 44.4% in 2006 to minus 29.8% (in 2013). That variability would seem to undercut arguments that big, bad years are proof of global warming.

There is another reason to be cautious about drawing conclusions from wild fire numbers—the variability in how such fires are tackled.

The bulk of U.S. fires, for instance, happen in Alaska, said Andrew Mills, VP of Commercial Aviation at Erickson, Inc. Mills said fires there can account for two-thirds of the U.S. annual tally.

But Mills added that most of Alaska’s wild fires are of moderate intensity and occur in remote areas, and fire officials there tend to let them burn out naturally.

“If you look at fire activity in the lower 48 states last year,” said Mills, “what you’ll find is that it is almost exactly on the five-year average for acreage burned.”

Helicopters use belly tanks and coordinate with ground vehicles to put out wild fires. Photos courtesy of Erickson Inc., Alan Radecki / CC BY-SA 3.0 and Wim Das

Starting When?

For executives who must plan for a coming fire season, by budgeting for it or positioning helicopters and aircrews, one recent aspect warrants attention: when that season starts and ends.

In Indonesia, the fire season typically runs from June to October. But in early March, fires were burning in the western province of Riau on the island of Sumatra. Provincial leaders declared an emergency as a result.

Fires are a regular occurrence. Indonesia’s government owns most of its forests, but grants parcels in them to small farmers and to big companies. For 20 years, the government has allowed grantees to use burning to clear their plots, provided the burn area doesn’t exceed about 5 acres. But those fires can get out of control.

Last year’s seasons was one of the worst in Indonesian memory, with more than 100,000 fires burning millions of acres. The fires were so bad that heavy haze blanketed cities throughout Southeast Asia.

Contributing to the fire conditions was a severe El Niño weather pattern that prolonged the country’s dry season and caused what was reported to be Indonesia’s worst drought in 15 years. Government meteorologists are forecasting that El Niño will be less severe this year.

In the U.S. last year, experts predicted a bad fire season. It started out slow, but (as the earlier numbers show) bore out those predictions. Not only did the wild fires do more damage but they burned later into the year.

One effect was to sap the federal budget for firefighting, which creates the unusual spectacle of a federal department leader squaring off with Congress. Such officials generally kowtow in public to senators and congressional representatives, if for no other reason than that the folks in Congress control department budgets and appointments.

But in mid-December, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told congressional leaders that he was “extremely disappointed that Congress did not enact a comprehensive fix to the wildland firefighting budget.” The Agriculture Dept. includes the U.S. Forest Service, one of the key federal agencies managing wildland firefighting.

A budget bill signed into law last year gives the Forest Service $1.6 billion for this fiscal year, a $600 million increase from last year. But that service spent $1.7 billion on firefighting in 2015. Congress authorized Vilsack to borrow money from other Agriculture funds to cover temporary shortfalls, with the promise that it would make up the difference.

Vilsack argued that doing so takes money away from forest restoration “and other critical Forest Service activities.” He said he wouldn’t authorize such transfers and if the firefighting budget runs out this year, Congress will have to authorize additional funds.

One federal fire official told R&WI that such budget juggling has “definitely become more of an issue in recent years.”

U.S. industry officials expect that may be an issue again this year. “The industry is anticipating an early start to next year’s fire season, as dry conditions in much of the country continue to prevail,” said the executive director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Assn., George Hill.

As if to confirm that expectation, unusually warm weather in February contributed to the outbreak of wild fires in Oklahoma that—fed by strong winds—burned 40,000 acres.

Cooperation Critical

Erickson Inc. has deployed its Aircranes on firefighting missions around the world and has developed innovative solutions to the unique technical problems of the different markets. Photo courtesy of Erickson Inc.

Wildland firefighting is often by its nature an inter-agency endeavor.

Recently in the Netherlands, agencies honed their collaborative skills. Large scale firefighting exercises were held on the grounds of an artillery range over an acre of heath and grassland.

Firefighters from the Army and the Royal Netherlands Air Force took part with two Airbus Helicopter Cougars of the Defense Helicopter Command from Gilze-Rijen Air Force Base as well as Boeing CH-47 Chinooks.

Another exercise was held in the neighborhood of Brasschaat Airfield in Belgium with fire-fighting and police units.

Mobile air operations used special laptops with animated icons to show the exact position of air and ground units and to coordinate fire-attack activities of the helicopter crews and firefighters in apparatus on the ground. The laptops also allowed personnel to monitor the fire line.

Simplex Marks 70 Years

Mission equipment manufacturer Simplex Aerospace is marking its 70th anniversary this year.

Simplex entered the agricultural spray market in 1946 and has diversified its offerings, with more than 185 FAA and international certifications.

Simplex’s products include those for the aerial firefighting market, such as helicopter Fire Attack belly tanks (which were recently certified for Boeing CH-47D Chinooks).

The company also introduced the Model 516 High Rise Firefighting System, which has gone into service in Japan on Airbus Helicopters EC225s with the Tokyo Fire Department’s Air Hyper Rescue unit.

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