Friday, October 17, 2008

Wildland Firefighting - Air Resources...

There are many different elements to wildland firefighting. The size and complexity of a wildland fire depends on fire behavior influenced by fuels, weather & topography combined with the location of the fire and the success of initial attack (or lack thereof). Throughout this blog I’ll offer a glimpse of the broad picture of the topic at hand and in this session it will be some of the air resources used during wildfire suppression.

The decision to use firefighting air resources is based in the assessment of values at risk to the fire, the resistance of the fire to other forms of suppression action, i.e. ground attack by firefighters, engine companies & heavy equipment and the rate of spread of the fire itself.

To simplify the discussion lets break firefighting air resources into two categories; rotors and fixed wings. In ‘normal’ speak that’s helicopters & airplanes. Within each of these two categories there are large variations in the type of resource based on size, performance, cost, and availability.
Lets look first at rotors. Here is a ship bucketing water from Wannacut Lake in the upper Okanogan Valley. I caught this rotor just as it began lifting it’s bucket full of water. Notice the prop-wash on the lake’s surface as the helicopter begins lifting off.

The incident (started by a nearby campfire) is only minutes away for this rotor making it a very efficient firefighting resource. With the assistance of this helicopter, pilot and crew we managed to catch this fire under 20 acres in size, protecting nearby resort and homes in the process.
Rotors are not only used to deliver water via buckets but to reconnoiter fire behavior, shuttle firefighters, and to provide recon flights to incident commanders, command staff, and other officials. The photo above is a shot of a rotor lifting off after delivering me back to ground from a recon flight.

The following photo is an example of a ‘fixed wing’ or firefighting plane. This PBY was incoming on a fire in the highlands near Republic WA when one of my staff caught this shot. Later we argued for years as to which of us had snapped the pic but he claimed the memory of having the wet camera and I gave in. Again the air attack portion of the fire was instrumental to a successful initial attack. The fire was held in check and very little damage occurred. In the PBY photo above we see pure water being dumped from the belly of this lake scooper, though often fixed wing air resources deliver retardant, usually mixed with a biodegradable red 'dye' to assist in the tactical process of using air attack.
As you might guess working around and using firefighting air resources is intense and demanding work. The pilots who operate these ships are top notch at what they do. The following photograph is one I shot on the Fish Lake Fire near the Loomis Forest in Okanogan County WA. It is a true image, no photo shop drama, no tricks, no illusions of distance. This is a retardant bomber diving in tight to deliver a drop onto the fireline. As I said before, these guys are good!

For the next couple of photos we’ll have a birds eye view of the fires from what we call a “bird dog”, it’s the lead plan that sets up the flight pattern for the big retardant carriers to follow. These pics are thanks to our fellow Canadian firefighters out of Penticton B.C. Canada, home of some absolutely great firefighting staff. The first of these two shots is from the Saint Peter’s Creek fire. I was part of a unified incident command trying to stop the spread of this small blaze. If you look closely you can see a number of homes, farms and ranch houses scattered in the drainage. Fortunately with the help of these air attack resources we held the fire to 11 acres in size.
In this next from-the-pilots view photograph we are looking at a portion of the 2,000 acre Nine Mile Fire in northern Okanogan County. This was a tough June fire started from illegal debris burning and torched three homes. As can be seen by looking very closely at the photo (retardant on green roof of home) air & ground resources did everything they could to save the structures threatened by this blaze (a dozen homes inside the fire perimeter survived).
So, this was a broad based view of wildland firefighting air resources. In closing I’ll leave you with this short training video that I received from my friend Ray who runs the Forest Fire Lookout Association store in Spokane I like to think is entitled “Always be prepared”. Hope it keeps you awake…

Here's where you can find some more info if interested.

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