Chilean President declares state of catastrophe due to numerous wildfires

A DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker is en route from San Bernardino, California

(This article first appeared at FireAviation.com)

DC-10 air tanker
Tanker 910, a DC-10, at McClellan October 10, 2017. Photo by Sergio Maraschin

One of 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 very large air tankers is en route to Chile. Tanker 910, N612AX, departed from San Bernardino, California Wednesday. It made a stop at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala later in the day, and information on Flight Aware appears to indicate that it will also stop at Pisco, Peru.

John Gould, President of 10 Tanker said the aircraft is expected to arrive at Santiago, Chile early Thursday morning. He said it will be working for the National Forest Corporation, or CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal), which is a Chilean private, non-profit organization, through which the Chilean state contributes to the development and sustainable management of the country’s forest resources. CONAF is overseen and funded by Chile’s Ministry of Agriculture. There is no one governmental agency that has the authority, responsibility, and resources to manage wildfires in the Country.

On Tuesday Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of catastrophe in some regions of the country due to unusually hot weather and numerous wildfires. Below is an excerpt from Prensa Latina:

[Undersecretary of the Interior, Rodrigo] Ubilla said that this extreme measure seeks to strengthen the network of logistical support to deal with these disasters, and that these commanders will be responsible for ‘controlling public order, operationally support the tasks of prevention, fire fighting and adopt all necessary measures to avoid risks to the population.

More than 8,000 hectares [19,000 acres] of forests and pastures have already been burned by flames, dozens of homes have been destroyed and hundreds of people evacuated, according to reports from the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) and the National Emergency Office of the Ministry of the Interior (ONEMI).

Two years ago Global Supertanker’s 747 very large air tanker spent a month or so fighting fires in Chile working out of Santiago. Andrea Avolio, a vice president of the company, said their aircraft is presently down for several weeks undergoing heavy maintenance. She said the company has not received any inquiries from officials in Chile about it being deployed.

Dan Snyder, CEO and President of Neptune, said he has recently had some informal discussions with folks in Chile but no orders have been placed. Neptune sent one of their BAe-146s, Tanker 03, to Concepción, Chile two years ago at the same time the 747 was farther north in Santiago.

A spokesperson for Aero-Flite said as far as she knew the company has no plans to send one of their RJ85 large air tankers to South America. Currently three of them are working in Australia.

Last month an IL-76 airplane hauled a Kamov Ka-32A11BC helicopter to Chile to fight fires. And on Christmas Eve Billings Flying Service unloaded one of their CH-47D Chinooks off a ship in Chile.

Billings Flying Service CH-47D helicopter
Billings Flying Service’s Helicopter 03, a CH-47D Chinook, being unloaded from the ship in Chile. Billings Flying Service photo.

Revised National Fire Danger Rating System beginning to slowly roll out

This updated system that calculates wildfire danger has been in development for 18 years

The system that most federal and state land managers rely on to quantify wildfire danger in the United States was first developed in 1972. Updated in 1978 and 1988, the work is now complete on the third revision that began in 2000. Expected to be introduced two years ago, the latest edition is named “National Fire Danger Rating System 2016”.

National Fire Danger Rating System 2016The NFDRS tracks the effect of previous weather events through their effect on live and dead fuels and adjusts them accordingly based on future or predicted weather conditions. It is a numeric scaling of the potential over a large area for fires to ignite, spread, and require fire suppression action. It is derived by applying local observations of current or predicted conditions of fuel, weather, and topographic factors to a set of complex science-based equations.

“The [updated] system is being rolled out now”, Jon Wallace told us. Mr. Wallace is the Deputy Fire Management Coordinator for the Southeast Region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. He said, “An interagency group led by the USFS is hosting Fire Danger Operating Plan/NFDRS2016 workshops around the country to introduce the new system as well as to help people update or develop fire danger operating plans.  The final replacement of the current system is scheduled for May of 2020.  We wanted to have a pretty good transition period so that people would have time to compare the old system with the new system.”

Another approach for predicting wildfire danger

A group of meteorologists and others in Chile and the U.K. have developed what they describe as “a novel probabilistic wildfire prediction system”, a daily wildfire warning system designed to be used by land managers in Chile. It predicts one thing the NFDRS does not address, the severity of a fire that may occur (low, moderate, or high). It also specifically addresses probability of fire occurrence, for example, 25% to 50%. The product they settled on for communicating the forecast appears to be a little complex at first, with 16 “risk levels” which are grouped into four “risk colors”, green, yellow, amber, and red.

wildfire risk probability levels weather
Table from the paper described above. Click to enlarge.

Click here to see all articles on Wildfire Today tagged “NFDRS”.

Fire prevention mascot in Chile

ForestinThe United States has Smokey Bear for wildfire prevention and Woodsy Owl to promote caring for the environment. Chile has one mascot, Forestín, for both of these activities, and more.

According to Wikipedia:

Forestín is the official mascot of the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) of Chile. It is a coypu (nutria) which can serve as fire brigade (yellow fire resistant jacket and helmet), park ranger (green shirt and quepi) or forester (yellow shirt and green planter), which was designed to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires.

Forestín was introduced to the public in 1976 and since then has evolved.

Forestin

Here are a couple of videos showing Forestín in action.

Border collies help reseed after forest fire

Above:  Dog trainer Francisca Torres and her three border collies. Screenshot from the video below.

Three border collies are helping to reseed areas in Chile that burned during the siege of wildfires that blackened large sections of the country in January of 2017.

The high-energy dogs are outfitted with pouches containing native seed. As they run through the burned trees the seeds are distributed along their path.

Interview with a lead plane pilot in Chile

In case you missed it, here is the interview we conducted with veteran lead plane pilot Jamie Tackman in January after he had been working with the 19,200-gallon 747 Supertanker in Chile.

After 17 years as a ground based wildland firefighter in the United States, with much as it as a smokejumper, Jamie transitioned to the air, becoming a lead plane pilot. He has worked off and on with the 747 air tankers since Evergreen converted the first one. Now retired from the U.S. Forest Service, he traveled to Chile to provide lead plane services for the huge aircraft operated by Global SuperTankers. This time he had a different role, or at least a different platform, flying ahead of the air tanker as usual but in an aircraft flown by military pilots.

Bill Gabbert interviewed Jamie, who began by describing the situation. Chile has no infrastructure for supervising, using, or refilling large or very large air tankers and they were unfamiliar with the concept of lead planes. In spite of these challenges the personnel working with the 747 and the other aircraft developed procedures to fight the fires from the air, while the local firefighters improvised a system on the ground for refilling the 747 and the IL-76 with water.

747 Supertanker in Santiago, Chile,
The 747 Supertanker being reloaded in Santiago, Chile, January 28, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Climate change and the wildfires in Chile

During the current statistical period which runs from July through June wildfires in Chile have burned 601,367Ha (1.5 million acres) which is 924 percent of average for the entire 12-month period. That fact alone does not prove anything but it can trigger a need to look at the factors involved.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Huffington Post:

Santiago, Chile and Los Angeles, California lie roughly the same distance from the equator and are subject to the same climatological forces. Both areas have endured years of record-breaking drought that has thinned forests and desiccated farms. In the summer heat, when winds pick up, fires can start easily and spread rapidly through dried vegetation.

For this, blame climate change. Heat-trapping carbon pollution is driving temperatures up across the globe, setting the conditions for severe heat, persistent dry spells and a high risk of fire. A recent study found that 25 percent of central Chile’s rainfall deficit could be attributed to human-caused climate change. Consistent with planetary warming, Chile is breaking heat records right and left. California is doing the same.

In looking at the chart above, increased emissions of greenhouse gasses did not CAUSE the fires in Chile, but it is possible that their effects created an environment that made it possible for wildfires, once ignited, to spread more quickly than they would have otherwise, and were more resistant to control.