A surreal view of an air tanker shadow while dropping

MAFFS 4 drops on Papoose Fire, June 25, 2013
MAFFS 4 drops on Papoose Fire, June 25, 2013

The image above is a screen capture from a video of a C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tanker dropping on the Papoose Fire in Colorado this week. The drop was mostly complete at this moment — the shadow of the aircraft and the retardant is surreal. I wonder if it threw off or confused the pilots.

The video is at Fire Aviation.

Forest Service Chief could override air tanker protest

In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell said he has the authority to override the protest filed by Neptune Aviation for being passed over in the awards for next-generation air tankers. Chief Tidwell said he will make a decision within the next couple of weeks.

He also said the USFS hopes to obtain the C-27J aircraft that the Air Force may decide to declare surplus, and the agency would outfit them with scaled down versions of the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) retardant tank systems that are used in military C-130s, rather than conventional gravity-powered tanks.

More information is at Fire Aviation:

Wildfire briefing May 10, 2013

Smokejumping into pot

Smokejumpers who parachuted into the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon to suppress a lightning-caused fire discovered a marijuana plantation in the Applegate area on Monday.

The jumpers reported the garden, and Jackson County sheriff’s spokeswoman Andrea Carlson said law enforcement officers hiked in to the area and seized two guns and more than 1,000 small marijuana plants. Carlson said it appeared to be an operation run by Mexican drug gangs.

In addition to the pot, the garden had fertilizer, PVC piping, and a great deal of trash.

Military and civilian agencies conclude fire training at Camp Pendleton

Five military, law enforcement, and fire agencies concluded their annual wildfire training at California’s Camp Pendleton Thursday. Here are some excerpts from the Union Tribune:

Marine Corps units from Camp Pendleton and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing joined sailors from Navy Region Southwest, and units from Cal Fire and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for this week’s sixth annual wildfire training exercise.

Cal Fire signed an agreement with the Navy in 2004 and the Marine Corps in 2007, and the three agencies began holding annual three-day training exercises in 2008.

On Thursday, the third and final day of the exercise, helicopters filled 300-plus-gallon buckets by dropping them into Lake Pulgas, then emptied the massive containers over a marked spot in the hills. The battle against the simulated fire included ground crews and bulldozer operations, an added component to the training.

More good news for local residents is the Marine Corps has two more CH-46 helicopters at its disposal for potentially fighting fires than in the past. Last year, just one of the helicopters was available, because the others were deployed, Lt. Col. Dana Gemmingen said. This year, up to three CH-46 helicopters could be available, he said.

Lightning today

As this is written at 1:06 p.m. MT, I am hearing thunder in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Darren Clabo, the South Dakota State Fire Meteorologist, wrote the following this morning when describing a frontal passage expected today:

…The forecasted combination of relative low RHs, favorable fuel characteristics, a chance of lightning, and shifting winds may lead to problematic fire weather conditions this afternoon. This is not a Red Flag Warning day but conditions still warrant a heads-up.

Other western states experiencing lightning right now include Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Montana, and Texas.

Lessons Learned Center web site back up

The web site of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center was down for part of this week, leaving wildfirelessons.net and myfirecommunity.net inoperable for three days — Monday through Wednesday. It is back up, but not at 100 percent capability. They are still making some repairs.

Farm workers fired for fleeing California wildfire

Fifteen strawberry pickers who were fired last week for fleeing when a large wildfire was burning nearby, have been rehired.

MAFFS training concludes in Cheyenne

Training and recertification for Air National Guard Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) C-130 crews from Wyoming and North Carolina concluded today. Below is a photo of one of the four aircraft. We have more photos over at Fire Aviation.

MAFFS training near Cheyenne, Wyoming. USAF photo by Tech Sgt. Rich Kerner.
MAFFS training near Cheyenne, Wyoming. USAF photo by Tech Sgt. Rich Kerner.

Forest Service report spotlights fire risk for homes on the edge of wildlands

In a recently released report, U.S. Forest Service researchers noted that about 90 percent of fuel reduction treatments on national forests were effective in reducing the intensity of wildfire while also allowing for better wildfire control.

The report, “Wildfire, Wildlands, and People: Understanding and Preparing for Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface,” synthesizes the latest research and provides examples of what communities in the wildland-urban interface can do to reduce their risk by becoming “fire adapted.” Aimed at community planners, the report also underscores the important roles that homeowners and local, state, and federal governments play in reducing risk and describes available tools and resources.

Department Secretaries to visit NIFC

The Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, Sally Jewell and Tom Vilisack, will visit the National Interagency Fire Center Monday. Ms. Jewell was recently confirmed in her new position and supervises the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Fire in Florida

Stefan Willett of Daytona, Florida, aka @bassking511, just tweeted the following photo with the hashtags  #jupiter and #fl. He described it as “huge fire off the highway”.

Florida fire,

Update: check out the recent articles at Fire Aviation


Thanks go out to Kelly, Andy, and Barry.

When to activate military air tankers

There is an ongoing discussion about military air tankers vs. commercial air tankers in the comments below our article about the activation of two California National Guard C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) air tankers. Some questioned using government resources when the services should be provided by private companies. The Economy Act of 1932 is frequently referenced during similar conversations, since it specifies the conditions under which a federal government agency can contract for services from another government agency.

The following is an excerpt from an article at the Department of Commerce:

The Economy Act of 1932, as amended, 31 U.S.C. § 1535, permits Federal Government agencies to purchase goods or services from other Federal Government agencies. An Economy Act purchase is permitted only if … the ordered goods or services cannot be provided by contract from a commercial enterprise, i.e., the private sector, as conveniently or cheaply as could be by the Government…

The interpretation of this as to how it applies to using military air tankers could get complicated if the requesting agency, i.e., U. S. Forest Service, makes a determination, honestly and without bias, about the existing need for air tankers. For 10 years the leaders of the USFS and the Department of Agriculture have been saying they have plenty of resources to fight wildfires, in spite of continuing budget reductions and increasing numbers of acres burned. In 2012 they were comfortable with 11, and later 9, large air tankers, even though some of the 7 air tanker studies they commissioned since 1996 have recommended 35 or more. And even though we had 44 in 2002.

Fast, aggressive, initial attack on new fires is necessary to reduce the number of fires that become megafires. This can save taxpayers money, and save lives as well. (Last year in Colorado six people died in wildfires.) Even if all of the 8, or later this year possibly 15, federal air tankers are not at the moment committed to ongoing fires, how many air tankers should we actually have standing by, ready for fast, aggressive initial attack? If they are all committed to fires, that would leave none, and that’s not an intelligent strategy.

If we actually need 25 or 35 or 45 large air tankers for ongoing fires and for initial attack, having only 8 or 15 on contract could continually justify implementing the Economy Act of 1932 to hire the 8 military MAFFS air tankers. But of course that is not feasible… or smart.

The logical strategy is to adequately fund a viable fleet of 25 to 45 modern, safe, large, very large, and scooper air tankers, consisting of an assortment of sizes and capabilities.

And the usual disclaimer: air tankers don’t put out fires. Under the right conditions, they can slow them down, allowing ground-based firefighters the opportunity to extinguish them. A drop from a helicopter or air tanker is usually only effective if it can be followed up by personnel on the ground.

2 Military air tankers activated for California fires

MAFFS 7, from the North Carolina Air National Guard’s 145th Airlift Wing. Department of Defense file photo.

On Friday the Governor of California activated two California National Guard C-130 aircraft from the 146th Airlift Wing to serve as air tankers in the fight against the wildfires burning in the state. Governor Edmund G. Brown responded to a request from Cal EMA and CAL FIRE to utilize the capabilities of the Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) which can be loaded into the cargo hold of the C-130s enabling them to drop up to 3,000 gallons of retardant on wildfires.

The state also authorized Channel Islands Air National Guard Station (CIANGS) in Port Hueneme where the C-130s are stationed, to be used as a retardant reload base for civilian and military aircraft working the fires in Callifornia, allowing shorter turn around times for those working the Springs fire about five miles away, which grew to 28,000 acres on Friday. CAL FIRE employees are working with Air National Guard members to get the tanker base operations up and running.

The interagency agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Defense requires that MAFFS be operational within 48 hours. However they usually have responded within 36 hours of the initial request. If that holds true this time, the California MAFFS may be available to fight fires by late in the day on Saturday, or more likely, on Sunday.

There are six other military MAFFS air tankers that have not yet been activated, stationed in Colorado, Wyoming, and North Carolina. One from North Carolina, MAFFS #7, crashed in South Dakota in 2012, killing four and injuring two.

The four MAFFS from Wyoming and North Carolina are scheduled to conduct their joint annual training and recertification next week in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The two aircraft units in Colorado held theirs a couple of weeks ago.

Californians are dealing with the effects of a very dry winter which has left the forests and brushlands with live fuel moistures that are typically only seen late in the summer. Multiple fires have broken out across the state in the last few days. Most have been kept to less than a couple of hundred acres due to aggressive initial attacks by firefighters in the air and on the ground, but at least three have burned about 3,000 acres or more.

Another airborne weapon will join the fire fight on Saturday, a DC-10 air tanker that carries 11,600 gallons of retardant.

Fire briefing, April 26, 2013

California firefighter entrapped and injured

A Lieutenant with Tulare County in California suffered minor burns to his hands when his patrol unit became stuck in a ditch as a vegetation fire approached. Working by himself, he attempted to knock down the fire using the pump and hose on the truck but was unsuccessful. He was transported to a hospital complaining of difficulty breathing in addition to the burn injuries.

Texas legislature considers bills to promote prescribed fire

The Texas legislature is considering two bills that would make it easier in some cases for landowners to use prescribed fire as a tool. SB 702 would establish standards for prescribed burners, as well as education and insurance for those conducting the prescribed fires. A second bill, SB 764, would limit prescribed burning liability on government-owned agricultural lands, making it easier for government agencies to use prescribed fire, even under a burn ban. Both bills passed unanimously in Senate committees.

Colorado’s risk assessment tool for residents

The Colorado State Forest Service has an online tool available for residents which allows them to explore wildfire risk levels within a 1/2-mile radius of a home, or any other point of interest on the map.

Steam engine starts fires in England

steam engine
North Yorkshire Moors Railway photo

A steam-powered train started three vegetation fires in North Yorkshire County on Sunday in the United Kingdom. The fires burned about 19 acres in a remote area that was difficult for firefighters to access. Some of them hitched a ride on a train from Goathland that was packed with tourists. On Tuesday the train started another fire in Beck Hole. Weather has prevented the North Yorkshire Moors Railway from conducting their usual prescribed fires along the railway.

MAFFS annual training

MAFFS 2 training
A C-130 Hercules from the 302nd Airlift Wing drops a load of water April 22, 2013 near Fairplay, Colo during training. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nathan Federico) Click to enlarge.

Two of the four military units that provide military C-130 aircraft configured to serve as air tankers are conducting their annual training, certification, and recertification. Peterson Air Force base in Colorado Springs had their’s April 19-23 and Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne has chosen the week of May 5. The military Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) can help fill a need for a surge capacity when all of the privately owned contract air tankers are committed.