ALAN WARNES looks at how specially adapted fixed and rotary-wing aircraft are being used to fight wildfires in Europe, the US and Canada.

Conair Group uses an upgraded version of the BAe 146, known as the RJ85 which is operated by AeroFlite for aerial firefighting. (Conair)

As North America and Europe heats up and the ground gets drier, airborne fire-fighting (AFF) agencies are preparing themselves for the fire storms that are sure to come. Wildfires are now a regular theme to the Mediterranean basin countries and many states in the US and Canada. They are getting longer too.

“Many people these days don’t talk about the fire season,” Shawna A Legarza, the US Department of Agriculture, Director Fire and Aviation Management, recently pointed out. “The biggest change we are all seeing in the US is the length of the fire season. It used to start in May and continue through to October – a true six-month season. Now we don’t see a fire season, it is all year round.”

Supporting her words in March were the fire warnings being issued that week in most of Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, southern Kansas, northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and southeastern Missouri.

She added that blazes in the US last year affected more than 10m acres, 10,000 structures and 8,000 homes – five times higher than the average 1,500 houses a year. Around 29,000 fire-fighting resources were deployed at the height of last year’s fire season – the closest year to that was 2015. Aviation resources were truly tested, with 87,000 flight hours flown in 2017 responding to fires in the US. The trend is likely to continue and by mid-March there had already been more fires in 2018 than at the same time last year.

There were similar stories right across the Mediterranean Basin. Last year scorching temperatures swept through southern Europe. France, Macedonia, Italy, Portugal and Spain were hit the hardest but Bosnia, Croatia, Greece, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey all suffered too.

So it is not surprising that new technologies are either being studied or introduced into service against a threat that will only get worse due to climate change.

European methods

In Europe, each country has its own fleet of aircraft – some are civil and some military and each have their own standard operating procedures. Unlike the European air forces, participating in exercises never happens, which means working together is difficult and dangerous. There have been calls, primarily by the French Ministry of Interior which runs the Sécurité Civile fire-fighting fleet, to standardise the SOPs across Europe as the US has, but so far nothing has materialised.

Christian Stylianides, the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, spoke in France last October of the need to face up to problems: “When we join forces in solidarity on the ground, it often shows the limitations of our system. We need to fill the critical gaps in our response, particularly in specific capacities such as planes.” He went on: “It is not by coincidence that President Macron has called for a European Civil Protection Force. First, we must increase our collective capacity to respond, second to simplify and streamline the procedures and third we must have stronger links between national capacities and the deployment of assets at a European level.”

They are all real issues, one which the EU Commissioner has to address quickly so that lives are not being lost, although for some that’s too late. Most agree that one of the ways forward is a European Union-funded Aerial Firefighting Force (AFF). However, there are many obstacles and, when I asked why there wasn’t such a force, Stylanides said: “It must be a sovereign solution, with countries using their own assets.”

However, some countries can’t afford the appropriate AFF response and he appears to be ignoring the real issue. Probably, because as one insider told me; ‘the northern EU countries will not contribute to any fire-fighting budget. They don’t generally suffer from fires so don’t see why they should pay.’

The Bombardier-415 is a popular choice among most European aerial firefighting fleets but are not as popular in the US. (Alan Warnes)

The European AFF are very good at aerial fire-fighting, with military or ex-military pilots flying the majority of the bigger water-bombers. The Bombardier-215/415 is the most common in Europe, serving the needs of Croatia, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. They are backed up with helicopters and bambi-buckets, while the fixed-wing S-2F Trackers or AT 802 FireBoss act in the initial air attacks, dropping retardant in a bid to stem the fires.

The use of intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, which were once the domain of the military, to track fires and detect the hot spots has been on-going for a number of years in Europe.

In France, Luxembourg-based CAE Aviation has been contracted to provide 70 days of ISR work with a Cessna 208 Caravan, based at Aix en Provence. The aircraft is fitted with some of the latest technologies, including a L3 Wescam MX-15 EO/IR turret. With a customised work station in the back, the operator monitors the ground, the fire and the movement of the fire-fighting assets. He is usually accompanied by a fire-fighter who will understand the working practices and jargon of those on the ground. By looking at the main video screen, the operator can use his mouse to click to tell him the characteristics of the fire, including direction, speed, size and where the hot-spots are. Video is data-linked real time and in high definition to the CODIS (Chief Operating Officer at the Incident Command Post) and COS (Commander Security Operations) but can stream via the Internet to the Ministry of Interior HQ if required. They use an antenna, fixed underneath the aircraft which folds down in flight. The ICP takes the downlink on a tablet, meaning that the CODIS can see the aerial picture wherever he or she is.

The aircraft flies at around 9,500 feet recording all the action unfolding below. Personnel on board have three main tasks: forest surveillance – watching the areas where fires are likely to break out; the surveillance of new fires and monitoring the progress of extinguishment. The use of ISR is certainly helping the fight in France and is catching on all over Europe and the rest of the world.

US restrictions

This massive Boeing 747-400 has been converted by Global SuperTanker into a water-bomber which can drop 19,200 gallons of retardant in eight seconds! (Alan Warnes)

While European AFF suffers from a lack of cohesion, the Americans have to confront a lot of bureaucracy. For example, a state AFF agency such as CalFire (see later), cannot buy equipment from out of state – it has to be bought from a local supplier, which often increases the price quite significantly. Then there is the difference of responsibility between the US Forest Service (USFS) and the state agencies. The former has responsibility for all the federal land – the big national parks and vast tracts of wilderness, while the state will generally cover areas where there are houses and buildings.

Unlike the Europeans, the US fire-fighting agencies don’t generally like the Bombardier-215/-415. It isn’t popular in states like California because its Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn’t want Super Scoopers picking water up from one lake which could be infested by the virulent Quagga and Zebra mussels, then being dropped in another. These virulent mussels wreck fishing stocks, often killing native mussels, crayfish, and snails. They are believed to be costing the US economy up to $1bn per year.

Most US states have their own fire-fighting agency.

In the US, most states have their own fire-fighting agency. In California, McClellan-based CalFire is tasked with the majority of the Sunshine State’s AFF needs. Its fleet, second in size only to the USFS, is based at the former McClellan AFB near Sacramento. Its fleet of over 50 aircraft, made up of air tankers, helicopters and air attack aircraft, are deployed to airfields all over California. They comprise 23 S-2T Turbo Trackers, 12 UH-1H Hueys, 15 OV-10A Broncos, two King Air A200CTs and a Beech Baron. The pilots and maintenance personnel are generally the responsibility of   Dyncorp International which provides 58 pilots and 90 maintenance personnel for CalFire’s operations.

The Turbo Trackers have a 1,200 gallon tank and are tasked to drop the retardant along with large air tankers (LATs) or very large air tankers (VLATs), owned by contractors. The majority of helicopters, which are tasked to drop water, are flown by contractors. All work under two differing contracts with the USFS or state agency. Exclusive Use means the aircraft should be available for a minimum of nine hours at a specified location ready to go within 30 minutes, or Call When Needed when an aircraft has to get to the fire within 24 hours. The latter is becoming more common, although companies don’t particularly like them because it is difficult to budget the revenue.

The air tankers are working in conjunction with the fire-fighters on the ground, known in the US as ‘Hot Shots’. In California, the OV-10 Broncos are part of a bigger air operation and act as the lead aircraft, usually flying at around 5,000ft above the ground, with an Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) in the rear seat. This person is peering down above the burning area, observing everything. An air attack plan is devised and a fire traffic area (FTA) set up. No aircraft are allowed inside the seven-mile restricted zone around the fire without the ATGS‘s permission. This way of working happens right across the US, but in Europe every country has different ways of operating.

In the US, many AFF contractors and agencies are looking at more innovative solutions to combat these disasters. We no longer see tired old military aircraft being converted into air tankers. New breeds are appearing, like the BAe146, Q400, RJ85, Boeing 737, Boeing 747, DC-10, MD-87 and even the Viking CL-415EAF Enhanced Aerial Firefighter. Most of these contractors would love a piece of the European action too but, so far, none have been successful.

Through the night

More attention is now being paid to accurate targeting. (Alan Warnes)

Targeting the fire in a more efficient way for 24 hours a day, is the holy grail for the AFF community. Right now, as soon as dusk sets in, all the assets return to base, which can be frustrating. Wayne Coulson, CEO of the Coulson Group, is continually pushing the technological boundaries. He recently told me of a night fire-fighting operation trial last year in Victoria, Australia. “I used an S-76D fitted with an EO/IR turret, with a laser illuminator to guide the NVG-equipped S61 helicopter on to a fire.”

On footage he showed an S61 picking up water and flying 1,000ft over the fire before dropping its load. Six drops were made during the night in question, and viewing the IR imagery footage, the white heat was eliminated. It’s a very exciting development and one that will need further trials in the US. The helicopters will, of course, need to be upgraded with night vision systems, which is where companies like Aviation Specialities Unlimited will increase in importance.

More sophisticated systems used by the US military are starting to migrate to the AFF world. The USAF’s Brigadier Dana A Hessheimer from the Joint Staff, California Military Department, recently spoke of how a MQ-1 Predator (now replaced by MQ-9 Reaper) unmanned aerial system (UAS) was used to support fire-fighting operations around the clock during California’s Rim Fire in August 2013. “We are using technologies overseas to [monitor people and vehicles] so we can use them to fight fires – looking for hot spots and people. It is all real time technologies, with the full motion video the biggest asset we provide.”

The downside is it took three days to get approval – which wastes valuable time for the Incident Command Post (ICP). “But we are working on that” said Hessheimer. Over 500 hours of recording was provided during its operation. But before the UAV could start its work, the Dept of Agriculture has to agree to cover the huge cost, which can run into millions, of such an operation. While many agree it is a fantastic capability, financially it is not within the scope of existing budgets.

Insitu has also used its Scan Eagle UAS. The company has a lot of expertise, with over one million flight hours, and 120,000 launch and recoveries, and believes it has a lot to offer the AFF. Infra-red intelligence provided by the small UAV can record the fire’s intensity and its movement.

In August 2015, Insitu operated one of its Scan Eagle UAS during Paradise Fire in Washington’s Olympic Park. Paul Allen of Insitu told the author: “It was in a pretty remote location, and conditions were not good but it worked with a helicopter. From looking at the feeds coming from the ScanEagle we gave the helicopter pilot commands, pointing out the exact location of the heat source and he got the water right on the hot spot.”

At some point in the future, a pilot could be data-linked with the imagery but, as Paul told me, “they need to train first, they don’t want to add another element into a very dynamic environment already.”

Dave Toelle from the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, has been studying UAVs and is set to provide the findings to other states, “they would be smaller but cheaper and would be used for public safety and wildland firefighting.”



More helicopters are being converted into fire fighters with the integration of modern internal water tanks.  This S-70 operated by PJ Helicopters is fitted with the Simplex 370i which can house 850 gallons. (Alan Warnes)

Helicopters, too, are now being modified with AFF tanks rather than bambi-buckets, which California forbids from being used over densely populated areas. Simplex has developed five new rotorcraft Fire Attack systems in recent years. Mark Zimmerman, President and CEO of Simplex Aerospace told the author: “It includes a 1,000 gallon Fire Attack system with a retractable hover pump and a SkyCannon which directs the water, for the Chinese made AC313 helicopter; a 2,800 gallon Internal mounted Fire Attack systems for the CH-47 Chinook; a 520 gallon Fire Attack system for the Korean Aerospace Surion helicopter and an 850 gallon Internal mounted Fire Attack system for the Black Hawk helicopter.”

With high-rise fires being a major cause for concern the world wants more sophisticated fire-fighting systems for its helicopters and if they can use a pump to operate in shallow water even better.

The days of using retired transport aircraft and helicopters for aerial fire-fighting is a thing of the past. A new industry is emerging in the US, although as one leading player told me: 'If you want to make money then you need to look at another business then you need to look at another business!’

Alan Warnes
27 July 2018