Lessons learned save lives, preserve forest in blazing summer western wildfire season

 - October 8, 2007, 9:40 AM

Some forest fires start with a blast of jagged lightning, incinerating the dry timber and flinging the flaming fragments into the tinder-dry underbrush from which flames soon reach skyward.

Others ignite for more perverse reasons, the same ones Smokey the Bear warned us about when we were kids–campers, careless with fire. Smokers under the erroneous impression that all the world is their ashtray. And, even less understandable, from fires deliberately set in natural areas, set by people for whom the sight of fire ravaging a vista of untouched beauty brings with it some sort of thrill. Or, as in at least three cases in the last two years, set by rookie firefighters anxious to gain notoriety or experience with wildfires by starting their own, then starring in the extinguishment of same.

In the worst wildfire season since the disastrous summer of 2002, the American West and even much of Europe endured a hot, dry summer fraught with flame. Last year will be remembered as the season when the western U.S endured the massive blazes that directly threatened major population centers. Most notable of these was the 137,760-acre Hayman fire, which burned uncontrolled throughout east-central Colorado for 16 days, destroying 133 homes and inflicting some $40 million worth of damage. The Hayman fire, the largest in Colorado’s history, was started by one of the aforementioned misguided firefighters and burned within the Denver suburbs before it was all over.

So great was the demand for airborne resources in 2002 that the National Guard and even regular Army troops were called in to assist.

Later, more emphatic calls went out from the responsible agencies in Washington, requesting assistance from commercial helicopter operators nationwide.

How has this fire season, far from over and already destined to be remembered for some spectacular blazes in the mountains north of Tucson and in and around Montana’s Glacier National Park, stacked up in comparison to those of years past?
“Well, we won’t know for certain until the year is over and all the results are tabulated,” said Pat Norbury, acting national aviation operations officer with the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). “But as of mid-August we were running at fewer fires over fewer acreage, and with fewer massive fires in fewer geographical areas. All of which is good. When the fires consolidate like that into more contiguous areas, it makes them easier to fight because the air and ground resources don’t have to travel as far to get to them.”

Forest fires in the U.S. during the summer of last year consumed the vegetation of roughly 7.4 million acres and killed 23 firefighters in accidents both on the ground and in the air. So far this year, a single Bell LongRanger, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, crashed near Whiteriver, Ariz., claiming the lives of both its pilot and passenger, in a July 26 crash that took place mere moments after a crew of three firefighters departed the aircraft at a forward fire site (see page 106). A Kaman K-1200 K-Max owned by Superior Leasing and operated under the lease of the BIA was destroyed the day before, following a loss of control in cruise flight during Bambi Bucket operations. The helicopter crashed within 1,000 feet of the Brush Creek fire line at McGinnis Flats forest fire near Keller, Wash. The pilot was killed, and a post-crash fire consumed much of the rotorcraft.

Do Not Repeat

Resolved not to repeat a costly season like 2002, federal and state wildfire fighters, spearheaded by the U.S. Forest Service, have taken a serious look at several safety issues. The threat of an aging air fleet of waterbombers was among the chief discussions. It was last year that two aged waterbombers–one a high-time, low serial-number Lockheed C-130A, the other a Consolidated PB4Y Privateer (the Navy version of the little-known B-32 bomber)–went down in California and Colorado, respectively, both while fighting wildfires. Airframe fatigue was diagnosed in both cases and the USFS declared a new policy of using lighter, smaller, fixed-wing aircraft for that mission. Hawkins & Powers, the legendary Greybull, Wyo.-based heavy air-tanker operator, has had to move those hefty bombers into offshore duty.

Perhaps it was the image of that big C-130 shedding its wings and spiraling into the flames of the blaze it was supposed to be extinguishing in the hills outside Walker, Calif., that prompted the USFS to reveal what it calls its aviation strategic plan, known more prosaically in the USFS as “Reengineering Smoky Bear Air.”

In general, the plan calls for an upgraded air fleet with a central force of some 50 aircraft, 30 to 35 of them fixed-wing heavy air tankers (almost certainly some variant of Lockheed C-130 Hercules) and 15 to 20 large “helitankers” similar to the Sikorsky S-64 Skycranes modified by Erickson Air-Crane of Central Point, Ore. This core force, which would be purchased, not leased, could be augmented by Department of Defense C-130s fitted with a new pallet-mounted fire retardant storage and drop system known as the modular airborne firefighting system (MAFFS).

Part of the thinking behind this kind of standardization is familiar to any fleet manager: greater savings via economies of scale. The care and feeding of a few airplane types is far less costly than tending to a polyglot fleet. Implementation of the plan is set to be phased in between this year and 2008 but will be considered “a work in progress,” according to the plan’s text, “that will continually evolve throughout and beyond this timeframe according to the aviation community’s needs.”

Pre-Season Scouting

Before the official beginning of the national wildfire season on May 1, it was evident from the water-starved condition of the heavy foliage and brushy backcountry areas that as soon as the lightning started flashing and the careless campers started lighting fires, the beginning of the 2003 forest fire action would be in Arizona. This was the collective prediction of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), which is based in Boise, Idaho, and coordinates the firefighting intelligence-gathering activities of the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Interior Department’s Office of Aircraft Services and the National Association of State Foresters.

The forecast called for conflagration, and that’s what central and eastern Arizona got. Lightning-lit blazes raced through tinder-dry foliage, most of which had not been thinned of its natural undergrowth in generations, fueling controversy while also keeping the overall number of firefighting flight hours lower because some very large fires were allowed to burn out naturally.

Burning the Bushes

Ever since the early 1960s, the federal government’s stated firefighting policy has followed a “zero tolerance” guideline, meaning that every forest fire must be actively fought until extinguished. Researchers have only recently discovered what many feel to be an ecological flaw in that policy. At the heart of this theory is the link between a mature forest’s brushy undergrowth and the huge trees towering above it.
Naturally occurring fires, usually started by lightning, routinely consume this undergrowth, renewing the soil at the forest floor with fresh nutrients while leaving the larger, more fire-resistant older-growth trees essentially untouched.

Allowing no fire at all essentially kills the forest with kindness, new research finds, allowing the mass of undergrowth and what are called “ladder fuels” to grow to the extent that they support the heavier levels of combustion required to burn down the big trees. (They are called ladder fuels because they allow flames to climb to the green, needle-rich, extremely flammable portion of conifer trees, where the flames “crown,” bursting into flame throughout the forest’s top cover and often spreading much more rapidly than firefighters can run.) Some recent attempts at controlled undergrowth burns, however, have gone badly astray, such as the Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos, N.M., in which a controlled undergrowth burn went out of control, consuming about 47,650 acres and destroying more than 200 buildings, many of them on the grounds of the hush-hush nuclear research center, during May 2000.

The Bush Administration has made an increased effort toward elimination of this potentially dangerous brush buildup, launching what the Administration refers to as the “healthy forests initiative.”

“We must thin our forests in America,” Bush said during an August 11 visit to Summerhaven, near Tucson, where forests were devastated both last year and this year by blazes that blackened nearly 84,700 acres and destroyed 333 homes.
“Current laws make it very difficult to expedite the thinning of forests,” said Bush, giving an address on his policy relating to management of forests. Some environmental activists charge Bush’s plan is aimed at giving logging businesses greater commercial access to national forest lands with less federal oversight.

As Predicted

This year’s fires did indeed begin in Arizona, with massive “dry” thunderstorms (so-called because they create a lot of lightning but virtually no precipitation) blasting the dry hillsides in the wooded mountains northeast of Tucson. By the mid-August “monsoon season,” seasonal moist winds from the west bring what rain that arid state gets, spelling an end to the fire season in the Grand Canyon state. By mid-September, 176,140 acres had burned, making this year that state’s fifth worst in the past 10 years. State officials, while decrying the loss of tourism dollars during the peak of the state’s summer vacation season, were also relieved that prompt firefighting and the timely arrival of rainfall deferred the fires from being much worse.

Meanwhile, the action followed the weather patterns. As the thunderstorms and tourists tracked north, so did the fires. Largely passing over the Colorado forests, the fires instead fed hungrily on the Bitterroot and Sawtooth mountain ranges separating Idaho and Montana. The number of reported fires ramped up quickly from just over 100 daily in July to a whopping 400 fires reported on August 10. (For a fire to be large enough to officially show up on NIFC’s radar, it must have already consumed a minimum of 100 acres.)

To meet the challenge that “maximum effort” day, the combined agencies comprising NIFC deployed a total of 48 rotorcraft and more than 30 fixed-wing waterbombers– just about everything that had wings, whether rotary or fixed, and could carry water.

Into Action

Obviously, it is preferable to deal with a fire when it’s in its 100-acre phase of development rather than at 10,000 acres. That’s where the go-anywhere, land-anywhere, do-anything abilities of rotorcraft come to the fore.

“A wide range of helicopter makes and models are used for aerial firefighting of wildland fires,” said Glenn Johnston, NIFC aerial attack systems specialist. “They are divided into three types of aircraft–Type I, II and III. The type used on any given fire is determined by the on-site fire manager. There is no formula as to what sort or intensity of fire determines what sort of aircraft are called up. The fire managers order what they need, such as a helitanker or heavy fixed-wing tanker to reinforce the line and assist the initial attack, then Type II helicopters to transport crews and supplies. Types I and II get used for bucket drops. We don’t drown fires with retardant or water from either air tankers or helicopters. They provide specific support, such as initial attack and transportation, and that’s what they’re called for.”

Two years ago, at the end of an especially bad fire season that left more than 20 firefighters dead from both firefighting and support accident deaths, NIFC won congressional approval of a multibillion-dollar across-the- board equipment upgrade, focusing on firefighting air assets. So, two years later, how is the improvement program progressing?

“The improvement in the aerial fleet is a work in progress,” said Johnston. “Given the large amount of money involved in purchasing newer aviation assets, this will be done within the next five years. Our first priority is to augment the lead-plane fleet. (The lead plane serves as both a fire scout and airborne command post for both air and ground firefighting activity. The present-day lead plane fleet is made up of a mix of Beech Barons and King Air C90s and 200s, as well as U-21Fs [Army-modified King Air A100s]). What we’ve done with the funding so far is acquire more ground-based firefighting equipment, and hire more firefighters. We were also provided additional appropriations to assist state and local fire departments with equipment and training.”

All told, NIFC has issued contracts for 35 fixed-wing tankers, all operated under contract, none owned by the federal government. These aircraft range from Lockheed P-3 Orions, a sturdy military version of the Electra turboprop airliner, to DC-4s, DC-6s and Grumman S2H Trackers (modified 1950s-vintage carrier-borne piston-powered anti-submarine aircraft).

In addition to that capable fleet, NIFC signs up a total of 54 so-called SEATs single-engine air tankers), airplanes used in penny-packet attacks on relatively small fires. These are agricultural-applications airplanes–Air Tractor 802s and Dromaders for the most part. “We don’t just cruise up and drown a piece of fire,” said Gallagher, describing the tactics NIFC pilots use. “The waterbombers use water and retardant to form lanes that channel the fire away from the fuel and air it needs to survive. We try to drive the fire, herding it the way we want it to go. While that is going on, some aircraft monitor future fire developments while the lighter aircraft and especially the helicopters perform spot attacks and help the ground crews detect and extinguish flare-ups.”

Judging by the initial forecasts for this summer, the western U.S. is getting off relatively easy. While some big fires have dominated the news, especially the Robert fire at the western entrance to Glacier National Park, overall the proportion of large fires shrank, evidence of faster detection, increased firefighting capabilities and better coordination. This year’s average wildfire measures about 52 acres, about half last year’s average of 97 acres.