Exploring Current Trends and Critical Issues in Aerial Firefighting

As climate change drastically expands fire seasons across the globe from a few months to all year, the Aerial Firefighting community faces new challenges and opportunities regarding how they do business in such conditions. To better understand what the Aerial Firefighting community faces today, Patrick Ryan looks at some of the latest issues and trends occurring across the spectrum of the Aerial Firefighting world.

Patrick Ryan  |  31st August 2023
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    Patrick Ryan
    Patrick Ryan

    Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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    Helicopter flying over wildfire


    In the last years, wildfires have caused record-breaking levels of destruction worldwide, particularly across southern Europe. Experts predict that the situation will get far worse before it gets better. 

    This year, significant wildfires have burned across vast swaths of the Mediterranean region. In Algeria, at least 34 people have died. In Croatia, flames came within miles of the medieval town of Dubrovnik. 

    Greece has been particularly hard hit, with authorities evacuating more than 20,000 people from homes and resorts in the south of the holiday island of Rhodes. Nearly 3,000 tourists were quickly evacuated from the island, and tour operators had to cancel future hospitality services. 

    Sadly, along with the general havoc and devastation that these fires have caused, two Greek Air Force Aerial Firefighting pilots lost their lives when their Canadair-Bombardier CL-215 Scooper, which had been dropping water, crashed on a hillside close to the town of Karystos on the island of Evia, east of Athens. 

    Besides all the changes in the environment and their effects on the world, the Aerial Firefighting sector is also dealing with new challenges and adapting accordingly. Even though some issues or trends are not new, their importance makes them timeless items of interest and concern. So, what does Aerial Firefighting look like today, and what are the issues and trends this sector faces?

    Today's Aerial Firefighting 

    Unlike the early days of Aerial Firefighting, It's gone beyond a few one-off aircraft to an organized international "Air Force" with specialized missions and aircraft focused on extinguishing wildfires. Aerial Firefighting (Air Attack) is about suppressing a fire or, specifically, a wildfire. Wildfire suppression is a combination of air and ground firefighting operations used to defeat wildfires. Additionally, it consists of different types of tactics and techniques that are different from fighting structure fires in urban settings. 

    Working with specially designed or modified firefighting aircraft, wildfire firefighting crews build fire lines and extinguish flames to protect humans, property, and remote natural wilderness regions. Wildfire suppression operations will also focus on wilderness areas bordering populated urban areas. 

    Opposite to popular belief, Aerial Firefighters do not put out the fire directly. The aerial team is a support element to the ground firefighters. Aerial Firefighting aircraft provide a massive array of capabilities, from information sharing, command & control, airlifting critical supplies, and airdropping fire suppression retardants at the fire zone's periphery. Similarly, smaller airplanes or helicopters focus on directly dumping water onto fires to stabilize the situation and allow ground crews to establish firebreaks. The specific elements of these tasks or missions include: 

    Fire Surveillance (Detecting, Reconnaissance & Mapping) – Fire surveillance operations provide critical "big picture" near-real-time information or intelligence on a wildfire situation. The purpose of aerial detection, reconnaissance, and mapping flights is to detect and communicate crucial intelligence to fire supervisors and other firefighting personnel. 

    Besides providing near-real-time intelligence, this operation provides ground firefighters with real-time fire behavior intelligence, which provides scene commanders and supervisors with quick reaction information. For example, such information helps highlight critical entry and exit routes for reacting units.

    "...the Aerial Firefighting community has its challenges and issues. However, the community is not sitting back when dealing with these issues but instead facing them "head-on" with new technology and improved methods to maximize resources and improve firefight capabilities"

    C3 (Command, Communications, and Control - Aerial Supervision, Bird Dog) - Aerial Supervision, also known as Bird Dog, refers to an aircraft that serves as an air attack platform or aerial supervisor during firefighting operations. 

    The Bird Dog is crucial in coordinating and directing firefighting efforts from the air. The primary responsibility of the Bird Dog pilot is to observe the fire's behavior, identify hot spots, assess wind direction and speed, and communicate this information to the other firefighting aircraft and ground crews. 

    The Bird Dog aircraft is typically a smaller, more maneuverable plane or helicopter that can fly at lower altitudes, giving the pilot a clear view of the fire and its surroundings. The pilot relays real-time information to the firefighting air tanker pilots, helicopter pilots, and ground-based incident commanders, helping them decide where to drop fire retardant or water and how to best attack the fire. 

    Using a Bird Dog or Aerial Supervisor significantly enhances the effectiveness and safety of aerial firefighting operations, as it improves communication, coordination, and situational awareness among all firefighting assets involved in battling the wildfire. 

    Water Bombing or Slurry Bombing - The most eye-catching and recognized operation of Aerial Firefighting, Water Bombing operations suppress wildfires by dropping water or fire retardant from aircraft onto the burning area. This method is integral to wildfire control efforts, especially when ground-based firefighting resources are limited or face difficulties in reaching the fire. 

    The process of water bombing involves the use of specialized aircraft, typically fixed-wing planes or helicopters, equipped with tanks or buckets designed to carry water or fire retardant. These aircraft fly over the fire, releasing water or fire retardant onto the flames or the fire's leading edges. The released water can help cool down the burning fuel, while fire retardant substances create a firebreak, slowing down the fire's spread and helping to contain it. 

    As mentioned, water bombing is most effective when combined with ground-based firefighting efforts, creating a combined approach to combat wildfires. While water bombing can be a powerful tool, it also has limitations, such as the need for a continuous supply of water or retardant and the ability to fly in challenging weather conditions. Nonetheless, it remains a critical strategy for aerial firefighting agencies to control and suppress wildfires.

    Airlift - In aerial Firefighting, "airlift" refers to transporting firefighting personnel, equipment, or supplies to and from the wildfire-affected areas using aircraft. Airlift operations are vital in providing logistical support and mobilizing resources during wildfire incidents, especially in remote or inaccessible locations where ground transportation is difficult or time-consuming. 

    Airlift operations in aerial Firefighting can involve various aircraft types, including helicopters, fixed-wing planes, and sometimes even large cargo planes. Some common uses of airlift in aerial Firefighting include Firefighter Transport, Equipment Delivery, Retardant or Water Transport, and Evacuation.

    Issues in Aerial Firefighting

    Aerial Firefighting has always been a demanding profession, but unique challenges have "upped the ante" in the last few years. These days, the Aerial Firefighting community is required to provide higher levels of support with fewer resources. They consistently deliver, but many are beginning to feel the strain. Here are some of the leading challenges facing this critical Aerial Work sector today:

    Limited Resources & Changing Conditions
    Increasing Frequency and Intensity of Wildfires - As mentioned before, wildfires are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change, prolonged droughts, and land use changes. These conditions pressure aerial firefighting resources significantly and call for more effective strategies and funding. 

    Limited Availability of Air Tankers - The demand for aerial firefighting aircraft often exceeds the available supply, leading to resource constraints during peak fire seasons.

    Water Scooping Challenges - The crucial issue is the limited water that can be uplifted and sprayed over large forest fires. Along with this is the time lost flying between dumping and scooping. 

    Cohesion & Bureaucracy Barriers – Even though the Aerial Firefighting sector is an international Air Force, it's managed differently in each country. With this, there is a lack of cohesion between neighboring nations regarding common operating standards and sharing resources. This can be true even within a single nation regarding interagency or departmental coordination (Military, Agriculture, Public Safety, etc.). 

    Environmental Impact - The use of fire retardants and foam in aerial Firefighting can have environmental consequences, such as soil and water contamination. Finding more eco-friendly alternatives is a critical challenge. 

    Integration of New Technologies - While innovative technologies like drones and remote sensing hold promise, integrating them into traditional firefighting systems and ensuring seamless communication remains challenging.

    Safety Concerns 

    Aerial Firefighting is inherently dangerous due to factors like low visibility, turbulence, and the need to fly at low altitudes near active fires. Ensuring pilot safety and aircraft maintenance is a continuing concern. Undoubtedly, aerial firefighting aircrew jobs are dangerous due to the nature of their work. They often operate in challenging and hazardous conditions, including: 

    Fire Conditions - Pilots must fly close to active and unpredictable wildfires, which can lead to sudden changes in fire behavior. The intense heat, smoke, and turbulence can create challenging flying conditions. 

    Low Altitude Operations - Aerial firefighting pilots must fly at low altitudes to accurately deliver water or fire retardants. Flying at low levels increases the risk of obstacles and terrain hazards. 

    Extended Hours and Fatigue - Pilots often work long hours to contain wildfires during active fire seasons. Fatigue can impact their performance and decision-making abilities. Limited Visibility - Heavy smoke and poor visibility can make it challenging for pilots to see the terrain, fire lines, or other aircraft, increasing the risk of accidents. 

    Collisions and Mid-Air Hazards - In areas with multiple firefighting aircraft operating simultaneously, there's a risk of mid-air collisions, significantly when smoke reduces visibility. 

    Remote Locations - Aerial Firefighting often occurs in remote and rugged terrain, making rescue and emergency response difficult in case of accidents.

    It's important to note that aerial firefighting aircrew jobs require extensive training and experience to handle these risks effectively. Pilots undergo specialized training and follow strict safety protocols to minimize the dangers associated with their work. Many Firefighting organizations prioritize safety and continuously update their procedures to improve pilot safety and effectiveness during wildfire suppression operations.






    Trends in Aerial Firefighting 

    Like other sectors in Aerial Work aviation, Aerial Firefighting is a constantly changing and updating field. With advancements in technology, new delivery methods, and current world events, the trends in this sector are changing every year. Here are a few of the leading trends that are taking place in Aerial Firefighting today.

    Technology
    Drone and UAV Integration - Drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly used in aerial firefighting operations. They can provide real-time situational awareness, conduct surveillance, and even deploy small payloads of firefighting agents to tackle spot fires. 

    Enhanced Air Tanker Technology - Air tanker companies and government firefighting agencies are investing in upgrades to their fleets, adopting newer aircraft models, better water scooping mechanisms, and incorporating more efficient fire retardant delivery systems to increase the efficiency of aerial Firefighting. 

    The Bombardier Canadair CL-415 Super Scooper is an example of improving technology. Compared to the earlier model CL-215 Scooper, the CL-415 has an updated cockpit, aerodynamics enhancements, and changes to the water-release system, creating a modern firefighting amphibious flying boat that specifically suppresses forest fires. The CL-415 also has an EFIS avionics suite, winglets and finlets, higher operating weights, an increased tank capacity, and the addition of a foam injection system. The CL-215T has a 2-door bomb bay, while the CL-415 has a 4-door bomb bay. 

    Remote Sensing Systems & Applications - Remote sensing tools are being integrated into Aerial Firefighting aircraft to aid fire detection, mapping, and monitoring. These technologies assist in better understanding fire behavior and predicting its spread. 

    One example of this is the Colorado Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMA) program. The program consists of two Pilatus PC-12s outfitted with state-of-the-art Electrical Optical & Infrared (EO/IR) sensors and are operated by Airborne Sensor Operators from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Wildland Fire Management Staff. 

    Operations
    Public-Private Partnerships – To mitigate cohesion and bureaucracy barriers, the collaboration between government agencies and private aerial firefighting companies is becoming more prevalent, leading to better resource allocation and coordinated response to wildfires.  

    Collecting and Reporting Information – Besides monitoring the movement of aircraft in firefighting operations, tracking technology is leveraged to collect logistical data regarding the type of retardant dropped, amounts dropped, start and stop positions on a fire front, seeing where water is uploaded, and seeing how much retardant was dropped in each particular location and by what type of asset. This technology has led to more efficient use of assets, especially in tight budgets and limited resource conditions.

    Large vs. Small Aircraft - Another trend taking shape is moving away from deploying large air tankers (B747 or C-130) and utilizing smaller single-engine air tankers (Air Tractor AT-802) and smaller helicopters (Airbus Helicopters H125). This is due to the shorter reload times required for smaller aircraft and the ability to fight in a pack. Also, dropping a smaller amount of water on different critical spots of a fire vs. a large quantity of water on a single spot provides a compounding ability to fight the fire.

    Summary 

    As you can see, Aerial Firefighting is a critical force in suppressing the ever-growing threat of wildfires. Like other Aerial Work aviation sectors, Aerial Firefighting bears specialized personnel, machines, and tactics to support a very specialized task. 

    Along with this, the Aerial Firefighting community has its challenges and issues. However, the community is not sitting back when dealing with these issues but instead facing them "head-on" with new technology and improved methods to maximize resources and improve firefight capabilities. 

    So, regarding the future and the forecast of more devastating wildfires igniting worldwide, Aerial Firefighting will continue to attack fires from the air. Without this specialized and vital Aerial Work sector, the devastation of wildfires to humans and the environment would be "unthinkable."

     

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