Boeing wants to fight wildfires with a howitzer

Above: M198 155mm howitzer. Photo by Armyman1989.

We have seen a lot of wild ideas about devices that inventors think could suppress wildland fires, such as a fire extinguisher bomb, a mine-clearing missile to build fireline, a fire truck that would suppress a forest fire without using water, a disposable air tanker, and 2,000-pound containers of liquid dropped from aircraft. Some have been awarded the unenviable “lame-ass idea” tag.

On July 28, 2016 the U.S. Patent Office published a patent application submitted in 2014 by Boeing for an artillery shell fired from a 155mm field howitzer that would deliver fire retardant or another fire suppressing liquid to a wildland fire. Each shell would hold between 1.57 and 3 gallons.

The howitzer shells would release the fire retardant either by an explosive, or by mechanically opening the shell. The release of the retardant would be at a pre-determined time, at a pre-determined altitude, at a pre-determined acceleration, at a pre-determined location, at a pre-determined temperature, at a pre-determined pressure, or at a pre-determined distance.

The application claims:

The gun delivers the fire-retarding material with high accuracy, at a high rate of delivery, at a reduced cost over typical fire-fighting methods such as airplane or helicopter release or ground-based fire-fighters. The fire-retarding material may be delivered continuously or intermittently for long durations, regardless of darkness, weather conditions, or intensity of the fire with reduced risk to those fighting the fire. Some guns may deliver the fire-retarding material within 15 feet of a target at a 15 mile range.

The application gives examples comparing the use of the howitzer and helicopters to deliver water or retardant to two fires that had initial sizes of 28 and 883 acres.

Our calculations based on the basic data in Boeing’s patent application determined that the 28-acre fire would need between 1,663 and 3,178 howitzer shells depending on the capacity of the shells used, 1.57 or 3 gallon versions. The 883-acre fire would require between 71,333 and 140,127 shells.

The application does not describe how many howitzers Boeing envisions being used at the same time to extinguish a fire.

We certainly are no expert on the specifications and use of military artillery, but a quick look at Wikipedia found that the M198 medium-sized, towed 155mm howitzer has a sustained rate of fire of two rounds per minute. Let’s say you had 5 howitzers available for the 28-acre fire, making 10 rounds per minute possible. They would need to continuously fire for about 3 to 5 hours. The 883-acre fire would require 120 to 233 hours (5 to 10 days). And that is assuming that the fire would spread very little during those 3 hours to 10 days. If you had only one howitzer, it would take 5 times as long.

Boeing did not discuss in the application the effects of the noise from firing thousands of rounds from 155mm howitzers. Imagine trying to sleep in fire camp while howitzers are firing.

Boeing says the debris from the shell casing will either “degrade”, “or degradation may not be necessary as the material will be environmentally inert”.

There are many issues with the concept of using artillery shells on a fire. Here are a few:

  • Unexploded shells. Would the fire be off limits to firefighters for days or weeks until it goes out and bomb disposal teams can be deployed to examine the area to declare it safe? Would the bomb disposal teams have to be firefighter qualified? Would it even be possible to find unexploded shells, or might they be buried in the ground?
  • Would land managers be comfortable with the debris left after thousands of the shells explode or come apart?
  • How long during and after the bombardment would firefighters be prevented from entering the fire area?
  • How far would the howitzer sound travel? From how far away would neighbors complain about the noise?
  • The patent application assumes that retardant applied from the air can suppress a fire. Generally, it can’t. Under ideal conditions retardant can slow down a fire, enabling ground-based firefighters the opportunity to move in and actually put it out or stop the spread with water or by removing fuel along the perimeter. If firefighters are not available to take advantage of the temporary slowing of the fire, aerially applied retardant is usually a waste of time and money.

The application mentions that the shells could also be used for nuclear plant fires and hazardous material emergencies. If a howitzer shell fired from miles away is the only way to deal with a nuclear meltdown, then that might be a feasible use for this idea.

The bottom line.

We award the use of howitzers to suppress wildfires a lame-ass idea tag.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bob and one other person.

Forest Service’s new rule restricts photography in wilderness areas

(UPDATED at 8:15 p.m. MDT, September 25, 2014)

The Oregonian received some additional information from the U.S. Forest Service late today about the requirements of permits for photography in a wilderness area:

Tidwell’s statement said he was attempting to “clarify the agency’s intentions” and would not require a permit for news-gathering or recreational photographs in wilderness areas. Tidwell didn’t explain why others in his agency told The Oregonian the opposite just two days earlier.

On Tuesday, Liz Close, the agency’s acting wilderness director, said the Forest Service would permit reporting in wilderness depending on its subject matter, with exceptions for breaking news. “If you were engaged on reporting that was in support of wilderness characteristics, that would be permitted,” Close said.

The proposed rule states several times that permits are required for “still photography and commercial filming”. It does not specify that still photography for non-commercial uses does not require a permit.

The application for a permit for photography can be denied if a USFS official decides that there is a “suitable location outside of a wilderness area”. It can also be denied if a Forest Service official decides that the project does not have “a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value”. That is a lot of subjective criteria to put in the hands of a Forest Service employee.

I conducted some additional research, and found that all of the details about this rule are to be found, not in the Federal Register, but in various USFS manuals, which then refer you to another manual, which then says, for example, the price of the photography permit fees are to be determined by each individual National Forest. So, it’s very confusing and time consuming to attempt to find out what the rules really are. There are 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. Navigating that jungle of bureaucracy could be a full time job.

Radio traffic for emergency management has transitioned from codes, like the the 10-codes (10-4, 10-22, 10-97) to clear text — actually using your words — that can be easily understood, without needing a translator if you are not versed in that particular version of jargon.

The U.S. Forest Service needs to write their rules in clear text.


(UPDATED at 3:05 p.m. MDT, September 25, 2014)

The Oregonian, which broke this story, reported today that the U.S. Forest Service is going to extend the comment period for the rule restricting photography in wilderness areas:

Amid growing public outcry, the U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday it will delay finalizing restrictive rules requiring media to get special permits to shoot photos or videos in wilderness areas.

The federal agency will allow public comment for an additional month, until Dec. 3, Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers said, and set up meetings to answer questions from journalists, wilderness groups and the public…


(Originally published at 2:56 p.m. MDT, September 24, 2014)

According to OregonLive, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing a new rule that would require reporters to apply for, and if approved, buy a permit to take photos in a wilderness area.

The U.S. Forest Service has tightened restrictions on media coverage in vast swaths of the country’s wild lands, requiring reporters to pay for a permit and get permission before shooting a photo or video in federally designated wilderness areas.

Under rules being finalized in November, a reporter who met a biologist, wildlife advocate or whistleblower alleging neglect in any of the nation’s 100 million acres of wilderness would first need special approval to shoot photos or videos even on an iPhone.

Permits cost up to $1,500, says Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers, and reporters who don’t get a permit could face fines up to $1,000.
First Amendment advocates say the rules ignore press freedoms and are so vague they’d allow the Forest Service to grant permits only to favored reporters shooting videos for positive stories…

Like the article says, the lines between reporters and an individual with an iPhone are blurry these days. What if a hiker sees something shocking about how the Forest Service is managing a wilderness area and submits a photo to a newspaper which then publishes it? Could they be breaking the law if they don’t buy a permit to take the photo? Does this give the USFS too much power to control what the public knows about how their lands are being managed?  It will be up to the local Forest Supervisor to decide on a case by case basis if the permit should be issued.

Are we going to have to edit the age old advice of, “Take only photos; leave only footprints”, adding an asterisk:

*However, if you are a “reporter” in a U.S. Forest Service wilderness area be sure to apply for and, if approved, buy a permit costing up to $1,500 to take a photograph.

You can read the Forest Service’s proposal here. At the top-right on that page you can click on “Submit a formal comment” if you have an opinion on the topic. You have until November 3, 2014 to tell the Forest Service what you think.

We are giving this our lame-ass ideas tag.

Igniting a controlled burn with buckets of diesel

controlled burn Python Hunter, buckets of diesel
Screen grab from the National Geographic Channel video.

Apparently there is a show on the National Geographic Channel called Python HuntersI happened to run across this video from the program, which includes a controlled burn. Their objective was not to kill the large snakes, they said, but to drive them out of the brush, or underground.

If you are familiar with controlled burns or prescribed fires, you will not recognize any of the techniques in this video…. unless you prep your prescribed fires by throwing five gallon buckets of diesel onto the vegetation.

Surprisingly, a representative of the Miami-Dade Fire Department is on scene, probably to reduce the chances of the actors killing themselves. The project may have been surrounded by mostly bare ground — it’s hard to tell — so there might have been little chance of the fire escaping.

python hunter controlled burn
Screen grab from the National Geographic Channel video.

Just to be absolutely clear, definitely do not try this technique. Diesel is not as volatile or explosive as gasoline but what they did, shown in the video, is dangerous. If they had mixed gasoline with the diesel, as is usually done when fueling drip torches for a real prescribed fire, or used straight gasoline, there could have been an explosion when they ignited it, depending on the concentration.

NIFC produces wildfire outlook, target audience: children

The External Affairs section at the National Interagency Fire Center has apparently chosen children as their target audience for this “2013 Preseason PIO Podcast” about the upcoming fire season.

It is not clear who should receive the, uh, blame credit, for this innovation, but Ed Delgado, the Fire Weather Program Manager, narrates this two-minute video.

Report: USDA backing away from trashing the USFS logo


There has been a great deal of dust kicked up over the last couple of weeks about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to cease the use of the venerable and historic logo of the U.S. Forest Service and replace it with the rather drab and uninspiring USDA logo. The plan was to replace all of the logos throughout the USDA with the USDA logo, not just the Forest Service’s.

We heard from a reliable source today that the Secretary of Agriculture’s office is going to make an exception for the USFS, and allow them to continue using the familiar badge with the pine tree. This is more or less consistent with a Twitter message that the official USFS Twitter account sent out this morning:

But, we’ll have to wait and see if the Secretary’s office follows through and actually gives the USFS logo a reprieve. Secretary Tom Vilsack probably had no idea trashing the USFS logo would create such a s**tstorm.

UPDATE at 4:55 p.m. MT, April 5, 2013:

In a comment, B.Morgan asked, “Does anyone have a picture to post of the Forest Service patch with the rounded top, pre-1970s?” Dick Mangan was kind enough to send along the photo below. Like Dick said in another comment, over those old patches, there was a narrow band of a patch that wrapped over the top of the larger patch. It had the name of the national forest where the wearer worked. Dick explained that the smaller patch in the photo was for the female uniform.

Old USFS patch

Fuel in a bladder bag

Bladder bagMaybe I led a sheltered life as a firefighter, or perhaps I just worked around people who made safety number one, but until today I had never heard of filling a bladder bag (backpack pump) with a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel and using it to apply the burn mix onto brush or slash piles that were to be burned, or were presently burning. But apparently it is a common practice on some U.S. Forest Service districts, according to a recently released “Lessons Learned” document. Below is an excerpt; the entire document is HERE. After the reported near miss, those practices may change.


I was walking down the hall of the district office with one of the district staff when we stepped into a conversation some of the crew leaders and assistant crew leaders where having about a near miss on some pile burning operations the previously day. There had been a flashback of flame toward one of firefighters while using a Fedco five gallon with fuel mix (piss bag/ bladder bag) to fuel the ignition on one of the piles. Some of the group was thinking it was no was big deal, some were trying to defend the action of using the Fedco as a firing tool, some were not sure and others thought it was not the right tool for the job. One individual said “we used to use them in region “X” and on my old forest all time in pile burning no big deal you have to just be careful with the flashback”.

I decided to bring it forward to the group that this is something we need to talk about, some were a little reluctant but everybody joined in. I had someone inform the rest of the folks waiting to go out pile burning that we all needed to talk about this issue and that “the piles would wait”. Someone pointed out “have you ever seen a dry piss bag on a fire and did you think there was fuel on the outside of the bag”?

Burning pileThe employee who had the near miss said his fire shirt had fuel on it. We talked how the drip torch had a spark arrest in it, and you are creating a fine mist at the nozzle when you pump the bladder bag which is also creating flumes which comes back and creates the flash that becomes a very unsafe operation.

The subject came up how to carry 5 gallon of fuel mix up the hill as the gas cans weight down on the arm. We asked those that did not think this was the right device to use, why did they not say anything. They felt that they were not going to use it and the person who filled it up was the senior leader of the group.

“What if this had not been a near miss but more serious we should have spoken up or at least talked about it.” We discussed, both as a group and one-on-one, the actions, planning and proper tools to use. We all need to have more training and discussions of proper tools, safety, and minimizing risks.