Spanish firm readies for firefighting season

 - September 18, 2006, 8:01 AM

Right now more than 250 aircraft–the majority of them helicopters–are positioned around Spain, to address what everyone expects to be another busy summer of brush and forest fires. One of the country’s biggest contributors to this annual effort is Helisureste, based in Alicante on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. The company has built a lot of experience in the field since its formation in 1984. Today as many as 25 aircraft from its fleet–from the Bell 407 to the Kamov Ka-32–are committed to the task each year.

In 1984, Helisureste demonstrated to its local government customer that a helicopter–while more expensive to operate than an airplane–could be a significantly more cost-effective weapon. Commercial director Antonio Martinez told AIN, “We showed that the 206 could make use of a confined [water] source close to the fire and deliver water 15 or 20 times an hour. Compare that with maybe two or three from a Canadair water-bombing airplane, assuming that a large enough body of water could be found nearby.”

Martinez emphasized that for a firefighting aircraft the volume of water that can be applied during a given period is more important than the size of each load.

Fires are a growing problem in Spain and its islands, as they are throughout southern Europe. As a result, most of Helisureste’s work is financed by the public sector, particularly the agriculture, public health or civil protection departments of largely autonomous regional governments.

The principle causes of fire vary by region. In the relatively wet Galicia in the northwest, agricultural land exists cheek-by-jowl with woodland, and the farmers traditionally burn old growth to prepare for new planting. In the drier south lightning storms can set off blazes in tinder-dry brush. It’s a year-round problem.

Firefighting contracts typically last for two to four years. The central government tends to keep the bigger aircraft–such as the Kamov Ka-32s, SA330J Pumas and Canadairs–on standby to back up local response. These types are based at 20-odd bases scattered throughout the country. The regional governments issue their own tenders and hire the smaller types for fast response.

As the largest national contributor of helicopters to the firefighting mission, Helisureste sends its Ka-32s (it owns four on the Spanish registry and is in the process of receiving five more from Russia), each capable of lifting a nearly 1,200-gallon Bambi bucket. “We can also send the Bell 412 and 212, or a number of Bell 407s. Our usual mission involves flying a fire crew and Bambi bucket to assess the threat from the air, before we start dropping water. If necessary we then call in others and deal with it as a team.”

Martinez said the 407–which has six seats, can fly at 130 knots and drop 900 liters on a fire–is useful for initial response. If the team decides a larger response is required, the company sends the bigger Bells. The Kamov is not currently cleared to fly passengers (its bulky lifting apparatus intrudes into the cabin) and its strong downwash can be a hindrance, so firefighters use it only if the fire
is difficult to contain.

Nonetheless, Martinez emphasized, “the Ka-32 is a potent firefighting weapon, and its operating costs are less than half those of an S-64 AirCrane.”

These days, the Helisureste operation is well integrated into the national emergency response infrastructure, even at remote outposts in forests or mountainsides. Individuals report fires by dialing 112 (Spain’s equivalent of 911) and reporting the fire directly to the forestry department, which dispatches a local inspector to assess the level of response or the nearest helicopter with a firefighting team–its bucket folded into an external pod.

Local Knowledge Imperative
Each helicopter has a 31-mile radius circle of responsibility, and it responds to every call-out and sighting of smoke. The department tries to deal with a fire within two hours: if the task looks too big, the region can call in help from the central government’s larger aircraft.

Local knowledge is paramount in the firefighting role; although every water source in the region is programmed into the GPS, the crews build their experience over several seasons and rarely move among areas. The company’s most experienced pilots have logged 8,000 hours in the firefighting role.

Firefighting in South America
In the wetter seasons, the risk still exists. “If not spotted and dealt with, a small fire can rapidly become a big one. Fifteen Helisureste helicopters–usually Bell 407s–are committed to this task during the winter; that number can increase to 40 in the summer. Training continues as well. “However, it is a reduced risk: most of them aren’t required and that is why we were keen to establish a complementary market–which we found in Chile in 2004,” said Martinez.

South America is a long way away–a 25-day voyage by ship–but it is the nearest market in the southern hemisphere, and sharing a language clearly helps. “Chile has its own helicopters, mostly military Bell Hueys, but their use is restricted and our customers– mainly private timber companies– wanted to introduce higher-capacity helicopters.”

Two Kamovs have been in Chile over this past southern summer: at press time, after a day’s flight to Buenos Aires from their bases at Santiago and Conception, they were being shipped back to Spain. Once home, they will soon be returned to work. “The Kamovs have been particularly successful; on several occasions they have been able to put out fires with just one drop. It has been a fairly wet winter but they understand the risk is there and next summer–who knows?”

Martinez added, “We are keen to expand in South America and may one day be able to establish a new company there. Then, we may be able to exchange aircraft and crews between the hemispheres, depending on the seasonal demand.”

He is convinced that, whether or not there is a case for global warming, the risk of fires has increased over the past 10 years. He said that the once-typical three-month season has increased to four months. Our regional commitments now involve an average of eight helicopters–one year-round, two for six months and five for four months. This is good for us, of course, because we can invest in new helicopters.”

He added that after serious fires in 2003 and 2004 the company increased its fleet size by 10 percent, adding five more helicopters. He noted, “Our customers now ask for bigger helicopters, upgrading from a 206 to a 407, say, or from a 205 to a 212 or 412 and keeping a Kamov on standby as a heavy bomber. There is also
a modernization trend, from the old 205 to the 412 or employing brand-new (and faster) helicopters such as the 407.”