From reading the report that came out of the Aerial Firefighting Conference held in Washington, DC May 25-26, it must have been a very interesting gathering. Organized by Tangent Link, it assembled many of the movers and shakers in the field that work in the United States.
Discussion topics on the agenda included:
- How do we calculate and what are the real costs in tackling wild land fires in the USA?
- Should there be a new Federal lead agency in prioritizing and resolving wild land fire assets, resources and funding?
- Is there a need for more research and development activities in finding better solutions for combating ‘Mega’ wild land fires?
- Which aircraft are in development that could be used to combat these fires?
- Would the use of Military technologies enable for a more direct and responsive approach to combating fires, including night time operations?
- Technical advances and solutions in development
- What is the correct mix of aerial assets in combating fires and should there be a centralized aerial firefighting squadron?
- What is the best approach in training aerial firefighting teams in new tactics and technologies?
Confirmed Speakers included:
- Tom Harbour – Director of USDA Forest Service Fire & Aviation Management
- Ray Chaney – Battalion Chief, CAL FIRE – Aerial Firefighting Airborne Sensor Down Linking
- Frank M. Gladics, Minority Professional Staff, U.S. Senate Energy & Natural Resource Committee, USA – The Budgetary and Political Realities of replacing the existing fleet of large fixed-wing tankers
- Norman Christensen, Professor of Ecology, Duke University, North Carolina: Fire Management- Past, Present & Future
- William Derr, Special Agent in Charge of California Region, US Forest Service (Retd): The Elements of Success & Measurement in Aerial Fire Fighting
- Rick Hatton – CEO, 10 Tanker Air Carrier – Raising the Bar in Fixed Wing Air tanker Operations
- Mark Bickham, National Program Manager (Ret’d) Bureau of Land Management, USA – Single Engine Air Tankers
Although he was not able to attend until the second day, the stark message from Frank Gladics of the Senate Authorising Committee on the Budgetary and Political Realities of Replacing the Existing Fixed Wing Heavy Tankers, was both entertaining and sobering in equal measure and did much to reinforce a positive environment of “we are all in this together” in seeking a way forward. Aside from the realities of ‘pork barrel’ politics, key messages were:
- Budgets are being cut as part of deficit reduction, but are still significant and Aerial Firefighting accounts for the major spend (85% of FS flight hours)
- A new buy of C-130J aircraft is simply unaffordable and a single aircraft type is vulnerable to a whole fleet grounding
- The public wants less, not more Government – Industry needs to formulate a way forward with public/private partnerships having a higher chance of success
- Look at alternative aircraft (including scoopers) and be mindful of the need to invest also in the helicopter fleet which flies significantly more hours.
In Country Briefing
The Director of Fire and Aviation in the USDA Forest Service, Tom Harbour, was fresh from the WILDFIRE Conference, where he sits on the International Fire Aviation Working Group. Having played a significant role in the 2009 Anaheim conference, he approached this event in a positive manner “acknowledging the challenges surrounding the future configuration of aerial firefighting and eager to engage in the conversations that will guide these significant decisions” (the Administration has yet to take a position). His contribution was seminal to the Conference and contributed much to the good humour in which the debates were conducted. His newly appointed assistant (fresh to the Forest Service from an Army aviation career) Art Hinaman, made himself available throughout, contributing to the essential communication in resolving difficult issues.
In practical terms the Federal AFF program has relied heavily on industry for aviation assets with the Air National Guard Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAAFS) representing a surge capacity. But the overall vulnerability is availability, and maintenance costs with aging fleets are nearing the tipping point. The Challenge is to determine the appropriate mix of government/contractor owned resources.
GOCO – in this instance Government Owned but Contractor Operated, was the topic of the presentation by Jeff Cavarra from DynCorp International, the program Manager for CAL FIRE, where he set out the considerable advantages of the use of FEPP – Federal Excess Personal Property. CAL FIRE modified and operate 0-2 Skymasters and UH-1H Helicopters at significant reduced acquisition costs, long term savings to Government and the mutual benefits to the State which are set out in his comprehensive presentation which merits study.
In a complementary presentation, Rick Hatton, CEO and President of 10 Tanker, set out the cost effectiveness of his converted DC-10s in – capacity (11,600 gallons), drop accuracy, speed of reaction and significant range. These aircraft are considerably underutilised, especially in pre-emptive fire control, although at a cost which a strained Federal budget cannot always meet.
A valuable comparison with the use of Air National Guard C130 Js, fitted with MAFFS, was presented by Lt Col Bryan Allen, fresh from firefighting operations in Texas. Given the nation’s operational tempo, he would not be comfortable with extending this role for what are essentially warfighting assets. In endorsement of the Washington venue, the presence of DOD officials, and specifically Clark R Lystra of the Office of Secretary of Defence allowed him to report that an increase in the use of Military assets to combat Wildland fires had been rejected.
Mark Bickham was joined by Chad Nelson (Thermo Gel) and Eddie Goldberg (Phos-Check) for an interactive Panel Session on Suppressants and Retardants with EARS coming into its own again to illustrate from the audience responses, the myths which the panel had succeeded in dispelling.
Beriev [Russian maker of the amphibious BE-200 air tanker], as both an Exhibitor and Associate Sponsor, gave a most invigorating presentation on the company which is making significant inroads into the US market, although with over 100 Russian planes already in operation country wide, the Forest Service will only accept FAA Certificated aircraft – still pending for the Company.
Debate on the issue [of changing the organizational governance of aerial firefighting] included a contribution from former Under Secretary Mark Rey that removing firefighting from the purview of those charged with managing the forests and land (USFS & BLM) would reduce both the financial resources and support to Aerial Firefighting.