Wildfire Season Stretches U.S. Assets

 - September 17, 2015, 2:25 PM
The Federal Bureau of Land Management is finding its resources stretched thin as it attempts to fight the large number of wildfires in the Western U.S. (Photo: National Interagency Coordination Center)

This might seem like the worst U.S. wildfire season ever, and in some places it is. In Washington State, nearly 667,000 acres had burned through mid-September.

However, the number of acres involved and the number of structures destroyed make this year’s fire carnage actually a bit below average in the Continental U.S., according to statistics kept by the U.S. National Interagency Coordination Center, the national government organization tasked with coordinating federal wildfire response and tracking wildfire data. What made this year particularly difficult was the number of fires throughout the country that all ignited at one time–mid-August, stressing ground and air firefighting assets.

“Fire season happened all at once this summer,” Kari Boyd-Peak of the federal Bureau of Land Management told AIN. “We had shortages of everything. We brought in air resources from the military and used agreements with Canadians [who brought water bombers and helicopters], Australians and New Zealanders to help us out as well.” The imported help supplemented an already impressive showing by the U.S. federal government, which deployed 150 helicopters, 30 fixed-wing tankers and 32,000 people, most of them under contract to the U.S. Forest Service.

In mid-August infernos were blazing up and down the West Coast. Through mid-September, fires had claimed nearly 50 percent more land than the 10-year cumulative average of 6.048 million acres; to date some 8.83 million acres nationwide have burned, but 5.11 million of that total was in Alaska, where full-suppression firefighting is rarely employed. Destruction in the rest of the country is running about average in the aggregate. However, it is significant to note that of the 3.7 million acres destroyed in the Continental U.S., nearly 2.6 million were in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Despite pockets of heavy structure damage in Washington and California, losses are still running below the 10-year rolling average of 2,800 lost annually: year-to-date through mid-September there were 2,569 structural losses. That number is down significantly from the 4,000 to 5,000 structures lost annually as recently as 2013, Boyd-Peak said. 

Structural destruction was down partly because aircraft were deployed to fight fires sooner, but adhering to that doctrine presented challenges in August, said a Columbia Helicopters spokesman. Columbia had six of its tandem-rotor Vertol and Chinook helicopters on U.S. fires almost all summer long. “It’s been as busy a July and August as I’ve seen in quite a while,” he said. “The Forest Service [USFS] and CalFire [the California department of forestry and fire protection] did a pretty good job of divvying up the time between the active fires [and keeping helicopters on call] close to the places they thought more fires could be growing. We had quite a few of our aircraft assigned to initial attack status for a while, knowing that the USFS and CalFire wanted to try and keep any new fires as small as possible. But it is really hard to find a balancing point in a fire season like this. You want to send all the assets you have to a big fire, but if you do that, small fires become big and bigger fires. They did a pretty good job trying to keep everything balanced. I think the strategy worked.”

Erickson Flies Record Hours on U.S. Fires

Erickson reports that it flew its helicopters a record number of hours on U.S. wildfires this August, flying 12 S-64 Aircranes and four other helicopters on fires primarily in Washington, Oregon and California during peak periods. The helicopters were supported by 160 personnel and numerous trucks.

“August and early September called for a very high operational tempo,” said Andy Mills, Erickson’s vice president of commercial services. However, Mills noted that the overall firefighting flight hours year to date are “on par for our five-year average.”

Mills said that helicopters Erickson added to its fleet as part of the acquisition of Evergreen allowed it to be more active on fires in Alaska: “The extra helicopters from the acquisition allowed us to deploy medium and light aircraft to Alaska for firefighting that we could not do in the past.” With more helicopters in its inventory now, Erickson was able to deploy four for fire duty in Alaska this year.