Kansas National Guard deploys Blackhawk helicopters to aid firefighters during wildfire siege

Kansas Forest Service reports that the largest blaze burned about 365,000 acres

12:52 p.m. Dec. 17, 2021 CST

Fire near Natoma, Kansas, Dec. 16, 2021
Fire near Natoma, Kansas, Dec. 16, 2021. Kansas Forest Service photo.

The Kansas Army National Guard mobilized Blackhawk helicopters to assist firefighters battling a rash of wildfires that began Wednesday. The very strong winds gusting to 80 mph made it impossible for any aircraft to work the fires until Thursday when the wind speeds decreased. A weather station at the Russell Airport recorded wind gusts of 100 mph, which is 26 mph higher than the minimum speed for a Category 1 hurricane.

The Kansas Forest Service said Thursday that 11 large fires burned nearly 400,000 acres this week in the state which is entering its dry season while the extreme western part is impacted by drought. The agency reported that the largest fire, dubbed for now the “Four Counties Fire” which is in portions of four counties between Codell and Russell, burned approximately 365,000 acres. The map below shows the fire at about 270,000 acres.

Map of wildfires in Kansas, Dec. 16, 2021
Map of wildfires in Kansas, Dec. 16, 2021. Kansas Forest Service.

Some of the fires are still burning, but not with the speed and intensity seen on Wednesday. The weather forecast for Russell, KS Friday calls for north-northwest winds 8 to 14 mph with gusts to 23 mph, with relative humidity in the mid 30s. Friday night and until Saturday afternoon the winds will be 14 to 18 mph out of the north-northwest with gusts up to 26 mph. Saturday afternoon the humidity will drop into the mid 20s. These conditions will make it difficult for firefighters to put the fires to bed.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly issued a declaration of a State of Disaster Emergency on Thursday, Dec. 9 due to elevated dangers of wildland fires.

“Much of Kansas is recovering from yesterday’s storms and wildland fires,” said Mark Neely, State Fire Management Officer, Kansas Forest Service on Dec. 16. “The Kansas Forest Service is working with state and local partners to get fires under control and mopped up so that we can return to normal conditions.”

In a fire outbreak of this size, it can be difficult to keep track of numerous simultaneous incidents, and that is the case this week.

“In Kansas, local officials retain full control of all emergencies, so State agencies receive information as local authorities choose to provide it,” the Kansas Forest Service reported Friday. “It is believed that several of the fires are fully or mostly contained, several will require several more days of work, but details from local officials are still very slow to come in.  Additionally, tornadoes, severe winds, dust storms, etc., created havoc nearly statewide.”

Kansas Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter fire
Kansas Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter from the 1st Battalion, 108th Aviation Regiment is used to mop up a fire in western Kansas. Image provided by the Kansas Army National Guard Dec. 17, 2021.

Many of the new and retrofitted firefighting helicopters are Firehawks

(This article was first published at FireAviation)

helicopters firehawk
New Los Angeles County FD Firehawks. Photo by LA County FD. March, 2018. At that time it still needed to swap out the landing gear and have the belly tank installed.

Firehawk helicopters are becoming more popular across the wildland fire services, especially in California.

A rather loose definition of a Firehawk is a Blackhawk, a Sikorsky UH-60 or S-70i, usually with an aftermarket 1,000-gallon external water tank for fighting fires, and a suction hose for refilling while hovering.

The earliest Firehawk that we are aware of was used in 1998 when Los Angeles County leased one with a belly tank from Sikorsky for about four months. (I’m sure someone will correct me if there’s an earlier occurrence.) Since then many of the newly acquired firefighting helicopters have been, or will be, Firehawks. CAL FIRE has signed contracts and expects to have 12 brand new converted S-70i ships within three years. Their first fully modified aircraft should arrive in June. Other examples of Firehawks include — Los Angeles County’s five (not all are fully modified yet), San Diego Fire Rescue has a one (but it is not yet fully modified), Ventura County has started converting three HH-60L Blackhawks into Firehawks, and Coulson is partnering with Unical to convert about 10 UH-60 Blackhawks. There are also other companies that have various configurations of Blackhawks with tanks.

As far as I know most of the above ships will have external water tanks, which require installing a longer landing gear to raise the ship, making room for the belly tank. Coulson, on the other hand, is installing a version of their removable RADS tank internally, and at least one company, Simplex, for example, has built another version of a removable internal tank. The company had it on display last year in Sacramento and at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta today.

 internal Blackhawk tank
Simplex internal Blackhawk tank.Seen at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019.
 internal Blackhawk tank
Seen at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019.

For the record, Sikorsky, the company that manufactures Blackhawks, does not support the use of an internal water tank in the ships. They are not worried about the floor being able to hold it, but are concerned that in the event of a hard landing the tank, especially when full, could pose a danger to the crew. A belly tank, their theory contends, would not threaten the crew as a projectile, but could crush under the aircraft, absorbing some of the energy — not unlike the crumple zone in the front of a well designed automobile.

Santa Barbara County FD plans to purchase a used Blackhawk helicopter

They hope to acquire it from the National Guard

firehawk helicopter
N137BH, a Sikorsky 70A or “Firehawk”, flies to refill its water bucket after dropping on the Rankin Fire September 13, 2017. Santa Barbara County FD hopes to purchase a helicopter similar to this one, but they would install an external belly tank to carry water. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Santa Barbara County supervisors voted 5-0 to approve the submission of a competitive bid for the fire department to purchase a Blackhawk helicopter from the National Guard.

Currently the agency operates two Bell OH-58A+ helicopters used primarily for law enforcement operations.  These aircraft are equipped with multi-agency communications radios, Forward Looking InfraRed technology, powerful searchlights, LoJack stolen vehicle tracking equipment, photo and video equipment, and mapping technology.

The department also operates three Rescue/Firefighting aircraft: two Bell UH-1H Hueys and a Bell UH-1N twin-engine Huey.  All three Huey Aircraft are equipped with rescue hoists, capable of lowering rescue personnel into remote or otherwise inaccessible locations and extricating lost or injured persons who could not be rescued by conventional means.  All of the Huey aircraft are also capable of fire suppression missions using either fixed water tanks or removable long-line buckets.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Santa Ynez Valley News:

Interim Fire Chief Michael Dyer said the Blackhawk helicopter will cost less than $1.73 million, noting Cal Fire just purchased two new Black Hawks for between $20 million and $25 million each. He said there will be some additional costs to remove military-specific equipment from the Black Hawk and install the gear necessary to turn it into a Firehawk aerial firefighting unit. The annual operation and maintenance costs also will be higher than the choppers the county currently operates.

County Fire’s Hueys fly at 120 knots and carry 360 gallons of water, but the Firehawk will fly at 190 knots and carry 1,000 gallons of water, which can be released as a full load or in three separate loads. It can also carry twice as many personnel, Dyer said.

In addition to the $1.7 million purchase price of the Blackhawk, the additional costs of retrofitting and maintenance will bring the total up to about $4.7 million. The most costly task will be the installation of the 1,000-gallon water tank including extending the landing gear, raising the aircraft to make room for the tank.

The helicopter they hope to purchase has been used as an air ambulance by the National Guard. It has about 3,200 hours on it and was built in 2002.

One of the Hueys now operated by the department flew in the Vietnam War and is 51 years old. Parts are becoming difficult to find for the helicopter fleet, with all of them being previously owned and retired by the military.

Two of the district supervisors stated that the fire department needs to develop a long range strategic plan for managing and funding the helicopter fleet.

At least three other firefighting agencies in California have recently purchased new Blackhawk helicopters, CAL FIRE, Los Angeles County , and San Diego Fire.

The article was revised to show that San Diego city, rather than San Diego County, is acquiring a new Blackhawk.

Chilson Fire burns several dozen acres in Black Hills

Above: A South Dakota National Guard Blackhawk helicopter makes a water drop on the Chilson Fire, July 24, 2017.

(Originally published at 4:50 p.m. MDT July 24, 2017)

The Chilson Fire has burned approximately 40 acres in the Black Hills of South Dakota, halfway between Edgemont and Hot Springs south of Highway 18 and one mile southeast of Old Highway 18.

At 3 p.m. on Monday firefighters appeared to have the spread stopped, thanks to efforts by 4 engines, 3 hand crews, 3 helicopters (1 contracted Type 3 and 2 National Guard Blackhawks), and 1 single engine air tanker.

Chilson Fire
Chilson Fire, between Edgemont and Hot Springs, SD. Click to enlarge.

Since the Northern Great Plains received 28,000 cloud to ground lightning strikes on July 21 and 22, firefighters in the Black Hills have responded to around 20 fires. Most were suppressed at less than an acre, but four others burned 8, 10, and 36 acres; and this one, the Chilson Fire, that is estimated at 40 acres.

Chilson Fire
A South Dakota National Guard Blackhawk helicopter drops water on the Chilson Fire, July 24, 2017. Click to enlarge.
Chilson Fire blackhawk helicopter
A South Dakota National Guard Blackhawk helicopter works on the Chilson Fire. Click to enlarge.

Very dry autumn brings numerous wildfires to the southeast

Currently there are 38 fires in the south that have each burned at least 100 acres.

Above: Local residents keep an eye on the Dicks Creek Fire near Sylva in western North Carolina. Photo by Jason Farmer, The Sylva Herald.

Most areas in the southeast United States have not received any significant rain in dozens of days. It has been more than 70 days for some locations in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. This has resulted in many wildfires breaking out in recent weeks.

days since rain southeast
Southern Area Coordination Center.

Currently there are 38 active fires in the Southern Geographic area that have each burned more than 100 acres, prompting the Southern Area Coordination Center to raise the preparedness level as high as it will go, to Level 5, something that does not happen very often.

southern area planning level 5
Graphic by the Southern Area Coordination Center

Large numbers of firefighting resources have moved into the south to help combat the blazes. The figures below include those that were en route, committed, or staged in the area as of Monday morning.

  • 5 Incident Management Teams (2 Type 1 and 3 Type 2)
  • 56 hand crews (8 Type 1, 22 Type 2, and 26 fire suppression modules)
  • 5 air tankers (3 large, and 2 Single Engine Air Tankers)
  • 29 helicopters (9 Type 1, 4 Type 2, and 16 Type 3)
  • 1,632 Overhead personnel

The audio in the video below is an interview with Mike Dueitt, the Incident Commander of a Type 1 Incident Management Team from the Southern Geographic Area currently managing multiple wildfires in North Carolina. The images in the video were taken October 24 through November 6, 2016.

These still photos were taken at or near the 532-acre Dicks Creek Fire, which is about 1.5 miles northwest of Sylva, North Carolina. They were all shot by Jason Farmer of the Sylva Herald. About 31 structures are threatened by the fire, which is being fought by 59 personnel.

wildfires western North Carolina
Smoky skies near Sylva, North Carolina. Photo by Jason Farmer, The Sylva Herald.

Continue reading “Very dry autumn brings numerous wildfires to the southeast”

Aerial firefighting on the Black Forest Fire

Blackhawk, June 12, 2013, Photo by Air Force Capt. Darin Overstreet

The military has been supplying numerous photos and some videos of their firefighting activities on the Black Forest Fire. Helicopters from the Colorado National Guard and Fort Carson as well as C-130 MAFFS air tankers are assisting firefighters on the ground. Here are seven photos of aircraft taken on June 12 by military personnel. The DC-10 is not military, but is working under a contract with the U. S. Forest Service.

Blackhawk dipping
Blackhawk dipping, June 12, 2013, Photo by Air Force Capt. Darin Overstreet
Blackhawk, dipping up to 500 gallons
Blackhawk, dipping up to 500 gallons, June 12, 2013,, Photo by Air Force Capt. Darin Overstreet

Continue reading “Aerial firefighting on the Black Forest Fire”