Innovations in Aerial Firefighting
By Jen Boyer
In 1995, 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) annual appropriated budget was dedicated to fighting wildfires. Only 10 years later in 2015, that percentage had increased to 50.
In 2016, firefighting consumed more than half of the agency’s annual budget. At this rate of increase, paired with reductions in nonfire personnel, the USFS estimated in its 2015 report, The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work, that by 2025, the percentage of annual budget spent on firefighting could be as much as 67 percent.
As wildfires become hotter, larger, and more difficult to control, and the fire season in North America begins to exceed 300 days per year, firefighters are taking advantage of innovations — from technology and chemicals to techniques and strategies — to cope.
Seeing in the Dark
Traditionally, aerial firefighting is available only during daylight hours and when visibility and meteorological conditions around the fire allow. This sometimes limits air support to eight hours or fewer per day.
However, at night, wind speeds and temperatures decrease while humidity becomes relatively higher, providing an optimal opportunity to tactically battle fires.
Night-vision goggles (NVGs) are the first line of night defense for some agencies. Successfully used to fight fires for more than 40 years, NVGs are mainly put to work at local and state levels in high-population areas.
The USFS had moved away from them not long after an NVG-related accident in the late 70s. However, recent increases in forest fires, innovations in firefighting techniques, and significant innovations in NVG technology have slowly begun opening doors to NVG use again on USFS contracts, starting with a contract in 2012.
“Firefighting with NVG has been around since the ’70s using second-generation goggles,” says Kim Harris, director of business development and sales at ASU Inc., a leading provider of portable NVGs. “In southern California with its high population, there was significant pressure to allow night flying, and agencies there have become very experienced with NVGs. While it’s not an innovation per se overall, the USFS slowly building back NVG use on big fires is a change that has the potential to make a significant difference.”
As more agencies begin to use NVGs, the technology is changing. NVGs traditionally provide a green-phosphor view. Today, a new white-phosphor option is making waves.
“Our eyes have rod cells and red, green, and blue cone cells,” Harris explains. “Green phosphor is only detected by our green cone cells. However, white phosphor is detected by rod cells and all three types of cone cells, increasing our brains’ response time in understanding what they’re seeing. The human brain simply processes the image faster, reducing potential confusion. It’s kind of the difference between dial-up and fiber optics, and we’ve had some very positive feedback from the field.”
At the Los Angeles County Fire Department, NVG operations have been in effect for years and remain a primary system for the department. However, innovations to further enhance night and low-visibility operations are on the horizon, such as enhanced visual systems (EVS), which offer a head-up or multisystem display to offer pilots strong situational awareness.
“EVS installed on aircraft would be a big jump for nighttime operations,” says L.A. County Fire Senior Pilot Tom Short. “It would be an aid to the pilot, offering the ability to see terrain on the display and goggle images. For instance, an obstacle to vision with NVGs, like smoke, is overseen by the EVS. I think these systems would be extremely valuable to nighttime and low-visibility fire operations.”
Another valuable tool L.A. County is actively researching is the addition of infrared (IR) sensors on helicopters. The department’s two new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks currently on order have the capability to include IR, and the agency is researching suppliers, Short says.
“Law enforcement has used this technology for years, but it’s not common on helicopters for firefighting,” Short says. “Our operations are unique because we’re set up for multimissions. We could do a water drop, return to extract a crew or injured person, head out to perform a rescue with a hoist, then be back to doing another drop.
“We do a lot of searches, and unless the person we’re looking for has a flashlight or a cell phone that still has battery life, they’re really hard to see with NVG,” he says. “The addition of IR would be a significant help in rescue as well as seeing hot spots, fire lines, and even the location of our fire crews clearly.”
New Drop Chemicals Make an Impact
Innovations in fire suppressant and retardants are also making a splash, so to speak. Offerings for what helicopters and airplanes can drop on fires are somewhat limited, with water, foam, and the traditional red Phos-Chek retardant being the most common options. However, gel is beginning to gain popularity.
Currently, the U.S. government has a long-term contract for using Phos-Chek, a mixture of 85 percent water; 10 percent ammonium phosphate fertilizer (a salt); and five percent dyes, anticorrosives, stabilizers, and bactericides. It must be dropped in advance of a fire to hinder the fire’s progression. The chemical is mixed in advance and is either pumped into aircraft tanks or can be dipped or snorkeled out of a tank. Phos-Chek has recently come under scrutiny for being lethal to aquatic life and harmful to vegetation in drought-ridden areas where rain has not been present to wash off the chemicals.
Foam is the choice of many agencies on the fly as it can be directly added to water in an aircraft’s tanks and mixed using the aircraft’s movement and vibrations. L.A. County prefers this solution because of the multimission needs of its operations.
“Other solutions require a team to come set up a tank and perform mixing, which really means you aren’t using it until Day 2,” Short says.
A new product taking hold on the local and state levels is gel. This more environmentally friendly option is marketed as the middle ground between foam and Phos-Chek. While gel must be mixed with water (much like retardant), it doesn’t aerosolize during a drop like Phos-Chek and foam can. Gel can be used both during the fire to suppress, or ahead of it to retard.
Gel products also aren’t required to adhere to rules surrounding use near water sources or sensitive areas. They are lighter than Phos-Chek — gel weighs about 1/10 of a pound per gallon versus Phos-Chek, which weighs about one pound per gallon.
“State and Canadian provincial agencies use our product and have realized significant cost savings,” says Matt Struzziero, vice president of GelTEch Solutions, a manufacturer of a firefighting gel called FireIce. “It’s lighter, allowing for more payload, and significantly less expensive, about one-third the price of long-term retardant. Because it comes dry in buckets, it can be easily moved to staging locations, even in the aircraft.”
FireIce basically works as a blanket on combustible material, keeping the water on top of the fuel and adhering to it, limiting evaporation.
No matter what firefighting product is used, there’s no question about the need for more of it to combat some of the larger fires. Luckily, innovations in aircraft are allowing for larger water drops. While retrofitted large passenger jets such as the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Boeing 747 have begun joining the battle, larger helicopters are also finding ways to increase their impact.
Columbia Helicopters has used its Boing CH-47D Chinooks and Boeing Vertol 234s on fires for years using buckets. However, two years ago, they began water drops using their new Simplex 2,800-gallon interior tank. Filled with either a pump or snorkel, the tank allows Columbia to drop more suppressant or retardant, decrease turn times, and be far more efficient.
“Our clients have been very happy with the dispersal pattern and effectiveness of the onboard tank,” says Keith Saylor, director of commercial operations at Columbia. “Our aircraft are by nature the heaviest lifters in the civilian world and the fastest and most economical from a fuel-burn standpoint. The tank is one of the most economical tools in firefighting and increases our efficiency.”
More Eyes in the Sky
Perhaps the most innovative change in firefighting are unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Mark Bathrick, director of aviation services for the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI), has been a staunch supporter of bringing UAS and pilot-optional aircraft to the fire battlefront. For several years, he’s worked with UAS manufacturers, operators, and government to illustrate the value of the technology in wildland firefighting, and he’s starting to see the work pay off.
“There’s no question, UAS have the ability to do work when our aircraft cannot, including at night and in low-visibility and meteorological situations that make flying unsafe,” Bathrick says. “Demos we held with manufacturers in 2015 were extremely helpful in developing new requirements for solicitations, and in 2018 I hope to have a contract for services for strategic-level, long-endurance UAS for reconnaissance work.”
Currently, the DOI already owns 245 small quadcopters used throughout its agencies for natural resources work such as surveys, mapping, remote sensing for wildlife, habitat studies, and wildland fires. The agency-owned UAS were deployed on 50 fires, flying 330 flights by September 2017. They use a variety of interchangeable sensors including IR and various range cameras to map perimeters and identify hot spots not visible to the naked eye. This information allowed incident commanders to tactically manage fire response, Bathrick says.
“The Northwest fires were very bad this year, and tremendously smoky with very little wind at times,” he says. “There were whole days where the only things flying were our UAS due to visibility. And the information they gathered allowed us to fight the fire smarter on the ground.”
Costing the agency as much as one annual small contract helicopter, these 245 UAS are easily carried into fire areas on backpacks and operated in the field. Currently about 200 operators are trained to use them, 50 of which are firefighters, according to Bathrick.
“We’re very excited about this work and want to expand to using long-endurance, strategic UAS that can stay high over the fire all day,” Bathrick says. These larger, fixed-wing UAS would fly well above firefighting helicopters and airplanes, sending photos, video, and IR back to incident commanders and ground crews in real time, allowing for tactical firefighting decisions.
One of the manufacturers to host a demonstration of its technology for firefighting in 2015 was Textron Systems with its Aerosonde UAS. Capable of flying for more than 14 hours and 75 miles while carrying sensors and cameras for a total payload of 20 lbs, the Aerosonde has been refined in military uses, having logged more than 150,000 flight hours.
“I think the biggest limitations on technology like the Aerosonde are the regulations around UAS,” says Dennis Racine, Textron Systems Unmanned Systems senior director of civil and commercial operations. “In a controlled situation such as a fire, and based on approvals, we’ve proven it is a valuable asset.”
Textron Systems demonstrated the aircraft on the 2015 Teepee Springs fire in Idaho. Integrating with manned aircraft in the temporary flight restriction around the fire and coordinating with air commanders, it flew above the firefighting aircraft. The Aerosonde used IR and cameras to identify hot spots that firefighters mistakenly thought were out. The UAS also spotted temperatures in the fire that were indicators of where the fire had the highest potential to spread, as well as fire lines where manned aircraft were unable to go during the first 24 hours of the fire because of visibility.
“We were able to prove UAS can not only assist with information to help fight fire smarter, but also help with post-fire reports using geosurvey data to identify potential areas for mudslides, landslides, etc.,” Racine says.
Lockheed Martin’s smaller quadcopter, the Indago, is providing similar work on a smaller scale. Weighing in at 5 lbs with a payload of swappable camera and IR sensors, it is collapsible and easily carried into range of the fire.
“While most of our customers are smaller agencies, we have had a significant increase in interest from federal agencies on down in the last six to eight months,” says Jared Hogge, Indago program manager at Lockheed. “People are starting to understand the value a UAS can offer to their program and are calling to learn about starting their own program.”
It is just a matter of time before UAS will be integrated into almost every firefighting operation, says Bathrick. “When they first started talking about bringing in a retrofitted passenger plane to make huge water drops, there was quite a bit of resistance. Today, agencies argue over who is getting the huge tanker.
“I’ve seen UAS acceptance on fires come a long way, and it’s still moving forward,” he says. “Once more agencies really see the value they can provide to support air and ground firefighting operations, I think we’ll see much more acceptance and, hopefully, the regulations and funding to support them.”
Jen Boyer is a 20-year journalism and public relations professional in the aviation industry, having worked for flight schools, OEMs, and operators. She also holds a rotorcraft commercial instrument license with flight instructor and instrument instructor ratings. Boyer currently runs her own public relations and communications firm and freelances regularly for aerospace companies and publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.