Volunteers firefighters in Chile set up water supply system for Supertanker

Firefighters in Chile, mostly volunteer, are battling fires that have burned over half a million acres

As the number of people killed and the acres burned in Chile continue to grow, more attention is being focused on the 5,000 firefighters battling the flames.

747 Supertanker
The 747 Supertanker reflected in a portable water tank at the Santiago Airport.
Almost all of the firefighters in the cities, towns, and rural areas are volunteers. On Thursday I talked with some of them at the Santiago Airport that were supplying water for the SuperTanker. They explained that in their department the only paid person was the Conductor, a position that in the United States we would call an engineer, chauffeur, or driver. The Conductor we talked with said he lives in the fire station with his wife and children.

Firefighters Santiago Airport
Firefighters at the Santiago Airport, January 26, 2017.
The several dozen firefighters at the airport water supply operation, who represented multiple departments, were very professional, and had what appeared to be well-maintained equipment.

Between refills on the 747 the firefighters lined up wearing their full bunker gear and stood at attention. They had just learned about the death of a fellow firefighter and wanted to honor his or her’s service. 

1,000 structures destroyed in Chile wildfires

There have been at least seven deaths

Above: NASA satellite photo showing smoke from the wildfires in Chile January 26, 2017. The red dots represent heat detected by the sensors.

The siege of wildfires in Chile continues to worsen, with more than 1,000 structures destroyed in the last two days. There are reports that virtually the entire town of Santa Olga was consumed, including approximately 1,000 homes well as schools, businesses, and the post office.

The largest fires are in central Chile within 300 miles south of the capital Santiago. At times smoke has reduced visibility in the city to about a mile. On Thursday I watched an air tanker take off at the airport and within 15-20 seconds after leaving the runway it disappeared in the smoke.

The wildfire situation in Chile is the worst in recent memory, occurring during severe drought and higher than average temperatures.

Four wildland firefighters and and one air tanker pilot have been killed battling the fires since December 28. An additional three to six civilians have also died in the fires, with the number varying in different reports.

The 5,000 firefighters assigned are up against a seemingly impossible task as the burned areas 588,108 acres (238,000 ha) have grown substantially in the last few days, damaging towns, ranches, and vineyards.

747 Supertanker Santiago Chile
The 747 Supertanker at Santiago, Chile, January 25, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The world’s largest air tanker, the 747 SuperTanker, has been assisting the firefighters in Chile since it arrived January 25, dropping 19,200 gallons on each mission. At least one and possibly two Russian IL-76 air tankers will also join the fight, with a capacity of 13,000 gallons. Authorities are hoping that other firefighting aircraft from around the world can be found to add to the temporary fleet, including water-scooping tankers.

The weather forecast for Chile indicates the wildfire situation is not going to improve anytime soon, and predicts more hot, dry, and windy conditions.

747 SuperTanker receives federal approval

Above: The 747 Supertanker conducts a test drop at Colorado Springs May 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(This article first appeared on Fire Aviation.)

The 747 SuperTanker has received interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB) according to Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker, the operator of the air tanker, said he first heard from the IAB on January 6 that the approval had been granted.

Interim approval is the last step before full approval. It means the company can compete for and receive contracts to serve as an air tanker for federal agencies in the United States. If it receives a contract, the performance and effectiveness of the aircraft will be evaluated while under this status. Then if satisfactory, it can be elevated to full approval. The interim approval is valid through June 15, 2017, Mrs. Jones said.

When the Neptune Aviation BAe-146s were first converted to air tankers they were given “interim” status while bugs in the new system were found and eventually mitigated. For example, the company added additional drop doors farther forward on the fuselage in order to improve the dispersal of retardant while making a downhill drop.

However the retardant delivery system on this 747 has been used on previous 747s and was fully certified by the IAB years ago. Over the last year it has been installed in a 747-400 which has more powerful engines than the 747-100 and 747-200 used by Evergreen, the company that first built a 747 air tanker. Global Supertanker bought the hardware and intellectual property for the retardant system when Evergreen declared bankruptcy.

The 747 can hold 19,200 gallons, much more than any other air tanker. For comparison, the DC-10 very large air tanker carries 11,600 gallons, while the BAe-146, RJ85, and C-130 hold up to 3,000 to 3,500 gallons. The P2V Korean War vintage aircraft that has been the workhorse air tanker for decades usually carries less than 2,000 gallons. The S-2T used by CAL FIRE holds up to 1,200 gallons.

Last summer the 747 Supertanker received a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA and the agency’s Federal Aviation Regulations Part 137 certificate.

T-944 mountain flying
Global Supertanker.

In November it made a non-stop flight to Israel and after arriving dropped on two wildfires at the request of the country’s government.

“IAB approval is an essential requirement in airtanker contracts for some wildfire agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service (USFS),” Mr. Wheeler said. “With this approval, we look forward to bidding on – and winning – upcoming domestic and international contracts. We are grateful and excited to join the team of airtankers currently serving a critical mission for the United States and globally, and look forward to continuing to work with the USFS, CAL FIRE, and the IAB during the final approval process.”

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Wildfires in Israel force tens of thousands to evacuate

Firefighters have been battling a rash of fires since November 21.

Since Monday November 21 many wildfires have broken out in Israel, forcing 60,000 residents to flee from the coastal city of Haifa as the fire spread into the center of the metropolis.

Normally this time of the year the country would be entering their rainy season but the fires are occurring during a two-month drought. The situation has been worsened this week by strong dry winds making the fires more resistant to control.

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, told reporters that almost half the fires were the result of arson. The term “pyro-terrorism” has been thrown around loosely in various articles, but that has not been confirmed by an authoritative source.

The fires slowed on Friday enabling some evacuees to return to their homes.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli Air Force is using 10 drones to detect fires and spot suspected arsonists.

The 747 Supertanker has been contracted by the Israeli government and after a 12.5-hour non-stop flight landed in Tel Aviv at about 10:25 a.m. MST on Friday.

Global Supertanker Services sent two complete flight crews with the air tanker, President and CEO Jim Wheeler said. Each crew consists of two pilots and a drop system operator. In addition there were four maintenance and ground personnel, one supervisor, and Bob Soelberg, Program Manager for Global Supertanker, who will liaise with the Israeli government.

747 Supertanker
The 747 Supertanker at its home base in Colorado Springs, May 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The 747 can drop retardant, foam, gel, or other fire suppressants.

This is not the first time a Supertanker has mobilized to Israel. In December 2010 the first generation of the aircraft dropped on the Mt. Carmel Fire in which 44 prison guards in a bus were killed after being trapped by the fire. The supertanker was one of 30 firefighting aircraft that were dispatched at that time from countries all over the world, including six Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tankers from the U.S. military. The assistance from the MAFFS was approved and arranged late in the incident. Some never took off and others were turned around at a refueling stop in the Azores.

Since the deadly Mt. Carmel fire Israel has substantially beefed up their fire aviation resources and now have 14 Single Engine Air Tankers under contract supplied by Elbit Systems and Chim Nir Flight Services. The SEATs have their place in the firefighter’s tool box, but the 747 carries far more than all of their SEATs combined.

In June Israel loaned three of their SEATs to Cyprus to help suppress large fires near Paphos and Evrychou. Now they are on the receiving end as firefighting aircraft are arriving from the U.S., Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Italy, and Turkey. In addition, Russia sent two water scooping Be-200 air tankers. One can be seen scooping in the video at the top of the page.

In spite of a report in a major east coast newspaper, the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center has not received any orders for firefighting resources. But, according to BLM spokesperson Randall Eardley, there have been some discussions about crew availability. Jessica Gardetto of the BLM said the Pentagon has inquired about the process for sending assistance internationally.

The weather forecast for Tel Aviv calls for warm, dry, and sunny weather through the weekend with 6 to 8 mph winds out of the northeast and relative humidities in the teens. For the 7 days after that the humidity will 33 to 57 percent with stronger winds on Wednesday through Friday.

Likely cause of Beulah Hill Fire in Colorado was an excavator

Above: Map of the Beulah Hill Fire at 12:20 p.m. MDT October 5, 2016. Data from  Colorado’s MultiMission Aircraft.

(UPDATED at 11:43 a.m. MDT October 6, 2016)

Data from Colorado’s MultiMission aircraft has produced the map above showing the perimeter of the Beulah Hill Fire southwest of Pueblo, Colorado. The incident management team added the completed vs. open fireline, showing that more half of the fire’s edge is contained. The latest size estimate is 5,232 acres.

Fire officials today announced that the preliminary cause of the Beulah Hill Fire was a Colorado Department of Transportation excavator performing routine drainage maintenance work. It was moving rocks with the bucket and that may have created sparks, or it could have been hot particles from the exhaust. Investigators eliminated all other possible causes.

Officials also announced at a 10:30 a.m. press conference today that the state will be awarding each homeowner whose house burned a $5,000 grant to assist with immediate expenses.

Evacuation orders have been lifted in some areas.

The MODIS satellite orbiting 438 miles overhead has not detected any large heat sources on the fire since it found one at 2:46 a.m. on October 5. But there are no doubt many small hot areas on the fire.


(UPDATED at 10:47 a.m. MDT October 5, 2016)

As a result of better mapping, it has been determined that the Beulah Hill Fire has burned 4,848 acres 17 miles southwest of Pueblo, Colorado.

The number of structures burned has been revised to 8 homes and 16 outbuildings. Evacuations are still in effect for the Beulah area and approximately 200 homes still do not have electricity.

The Information Officer for the Type 2 incident management team that assumed command at 6 a.m. Wednesday announced Wednesday morning that firefighters have not achieved any containment (scroll down at the link) on the fire, saying it is at zero percent. The fire started early in the afternoon on Monday, October 1. In spite of the stated lack of containment the approximate number of personnel on the fire has decreased from 400 on Tuesday, to 340 on Wednesday (300 firefighters plus 30 to 40 overhead) over the last 24 hours according to the numbers provided over the last two days. Some incident management teams conflate the terms “contain” and “control”.

Other resources on the fire include 4 hand crews, 30 engines, 3 helicopters, 2 heavy air tankers, and 2 single engine air tankers.

Continue reading “Likely cause of Beulah Hill Fire in Colorado was an excavator”

Alaska Supreme Court rules on lawsuit over burnout

Rex Creek Fire
The Rex Creek Fire on August 4, 2009, part of the Railbelt Complex in Alaska. Photo by ADF.

In 2009 firefighters in Alaska conducted a burnout operation on the Railbelt Complex of fires 45 mile southwest of Fairbanks. Part of the fire was on private land and four of the landowners filed a lawsuit asking for $100,000 each charging that the burnout was an illegal “taking” of their property. They also charged “negligence and intentional misconduct”, saying the state failed to adequately mop up after rains knocked down the fires, which later re-ignited.

The Alaska Supreme Court, reviewing a previous decision by a Superior Court, ruled that the landowners may be eligible for compensation.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Newsminer:

A Superior Court judge dismissed the eminent domain claim in December 2010, finding the state’s actions “did not constitute a taking because they were a valid exercise of its police powers,” and dismissed the negligence and intentional misconduct claims on the grounds of government immunity, according to court documents.

The landowners appealed the decision.

The Supreme Court’s ruling affirmed the Superior Court’s dismissal of the negligence and intentional misconduct claims but reversed the dismissal of the eminent domain claim, “remanding it to the Superior Court for further consideration of whether the specific exercise of the state’s police powers at issue here was justified by the doctrine of necessity,” according to the opinion documents.

“The doctrine applies only if the state demonstrates the existence of ‘imminent danger and an actual emergency giving rise to actual necessity,’ an inquiry that is fact-specific,” the Supreme Court’s 28-page ruling states.

The landowners’ attorney, William Satterberg, was pleased with the ruling and expects the case to now be decided by a jury. He said the state did not need to set the burnout fires on his clients’ properties and that the fire was “basically a fire of convenience.”

“It was easier to light it there than it was to do it a mile away,” he said. “We do know they had lots of time, they could have gone down a mile away from their property. They thought about it for 11 days before they did it.”

Another excerpt from a previous article in the Newsminer:

“The point is, what’s a piece of burned-out property worth versus a piece of beautiful lakeside property?” said Bill Satterberg, who is representing the landowners. “You can’t just go around destroying people’s property and not pay for it.”

The Railbelt Complex of fires eventually burned over 600,000 acres.

Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” made its first drop on a live fire in North America on the fire. It was done at no charge to the fire, with the company wanting to demonstrate the capability of the 20,000-gallon air tanker.

Evergreen's 747 "Supertanker"
Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” drops on the Railbelt Complex of fires in Alaska, July 31, 2009.

Below is a video of a large burnout operation on the Railbelt Complex, July 16, 2009, narrated by the Incident Commander. .

We first wrote about the lawsuit in 2009.

UPDATE, December 1, 2014: As Emmett pointed out in a comment this situation has some similarities to a lawsuit filed by a Montana rancher over the 2000 Ryan Gulch Fire. The heart of that case was the contention that firefighters who usually fought fire in the flat, wet southeast United States used poor judgement in selecting and implementing an indirect strategy of backfiring or burning out, rather than constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire. In the process, they argued, more land burned than was necessary, including 900 acres of a privately owned ranch.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Keith.