Saturday, June 23, 2012

US Forest Service adds four heavy helicopters to support wildfire suppression

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced earlier this week that the agency is adding four heavy helicopters to the aviation firefighting fleet.

The helicopters will be available this summer for large fire support and initial attack to any location in the United States.

The U.S. Forest Service successfully suppresses about 98% of the approximately 10,000 wildfires that occur each year on National Forest System lands.

Two of the heavy helicopters are S-61s owned by Siller Helicopters of Yuba City, Calif.; one is an S-64 Skycrane owned by Erickson Air Crane of Central Point, Ore.; and one is an S-70 owned by Firehawk Helicopters of Leesburg, Fla.

Helicopters are used primarily for dropping retardant or water during wildland fires, supporting the actions of firefighters on the ground. The additional helicopter assets will strengthen the agency’s capability to respond effectively to fire activity during the summer wildfire season.

The Forest Service can respond vigorously to wildfire with an array of assets that includes more than 15,000 USDA and Department of the Interior firefighters (about 70% from the Forest Service) and up to 950 engines, 14 large airtankers, eight Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, one very large (DC-10) airtanker, 300 call-when-needed helicopters, and a mix of type 1, 2, and 3 helicopters.

On June 13, the agency awarded exclusive use contracts for seven "Next Generation" airtankers. Three will be operational in 2012 and four in 2013. This is the first step in implementing the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy, which was submitted to Congress in February and recommends 18 to 28 large airtankers.

The Forest Service uses many tools for wildland fire suppression including accelerated restoration efforts that include thinning and other fuels treatments. Restoration of National Forest System lands are critically needed to address a number of threats to the health of forest ecosystems, watersheds, and forest dependent communities.

This year, as in the past, firefighting experts will continuously monitor conditions and move assets as necessary to be best positioned and increase initial attack capabilities.



Jack McCarron said...

Hey Jeff - Thought some of your readers would be wondering about just what those helicopters are using to put out the fires. Well, many times it's just water, but often it's water with enhancers, like foams or gels, or water with special fire retardants. By the way, the amount of water that aircraft can drop varies from 570 gallons to a typical amount of 3000 gallons to a maximum of 20,500 gallons (from the Evergreen 747 Supertanker). In Canada they call these aircraft "water bombers".

In the past the water additives were often borate salts, but these were found to sterilize the soil and were poisonous to animals. Those chemicals are now prohibited. Modern additives are usually ammonium sulfate or polysulfates with clay thickeners or diammonium phosphate with guar gum derivatives. This guar gum derivative is also added to plain water to thicken it to prevent runoff (so the thickened water will stay in the trees). These substances are non-toxic and even act as fertilizers, a far cry from the earlier chemicals used to put out fires.

Lead low-altitude aircraft are frequently used to fly ahead of the "water bombers" to coordinate the drops. Water is most often used directly on the flames. Whereas the retardants are usually dropped ahead of a moving fire, or along its edges to prevent spreading. These retardants may remain effective for 2 or more days, and act as an artificial firebreak. Drops are most effective when used with ground-based firefighter tactics.

Jack McCarron

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Jack - great information! Thanks for the comments!

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