A fire two miles from the Gulf Coast burned approximately 1,700 acres in southern Mississippi northwest of Gulfport. Reported at noon on Sunday April 26, the Tillman Road Fire stretches for about 2.5 miles from 11th Street north to Interstate 10 where Monday night firefighters ignited a backfire to stop it from crossing the six-lane highway west of the Canal Street off-ramp.
The Gulf Coast was in a drought situation with high winds and low relative humidity at the time and the fire was in a hard to reach area for the Mississippi Forestry Commission (MFC) tractor plow units due to canals and creeks. In his size-up MFC Incident Commander Sam Morgan estimated it at 100 acres. Roads, dozer lines, canals, and creeks were used to prepare for burnout operations. Crews fought well into the early morning hours Monday to try to contain the blaze, reaching 20 percent containment.
On Monday morning, the MFC Pilot in the agency’s Cessna estimated the size at about 300 acres. Then the fire made a big push with strong southerly winds that led to several evacuations and road closures in the area. Emergency responders fought hard to protect lives during this period of peak fire activity. As the RH rose at dusk, firefighters used burnout operations to contain sections of the fire. With crews working well into the night again, the burnouts were completed putting the fire at about 1,500 acres with 80 percent containment.
Tuesday brought slightly more favorable fire weather conditions, allowing crews to keep the fire boxed in. With some interior burning, the wildfire had blackened 1,700 acres by Tuesday night.
Wednesday brought about one inch of rain in the area allowing the fire to be declared contained and controlled. It is now being monitored for re-burns.
Approximately 25-30 MFC wildland firefighters responded to the Tillman Road Fire along with 14 tractor plow units during the four day duration of the fire. MFC’s Cessna and a Harrison County Sheriff’s Department helicopter assisted firefighters on the ground by providing eyes in the sky and monitoring the spread.
Jason Scott, the Director of Information and Outreach for the MFC said 106 residences and 7 commercial structures were threatened and saved. One outbuilding and an RV were destroyed.
Pat Sullivan of Harrison County Fire reported that the number of resources on the fire exceeded 200 with close to 80 pieces of equipment, from small drones to large structure fire engines, representing at least 15 agencies and organizations.
The Jackson Interagency Hotshot Crew is the only Bureau of Land Management Hotshot Crew east of the Mississippi River. Formed in 1997, the crew has fought wildfires from Alaska to Florida. They have been called upon to assist with numerous national emergencies, including Ground Zero after 9/11 and search and recovery operations from the Space Shuttle Columbia. The Hotshots were also involved in recovery efforts following several devastating hurricanes, including Katrina, Rita and Sandy. They are based in Jackson, Mississippi.
The crew is supported by Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters Foundation. The Jackson Hotshots are also committed to working with veterans and veteran organizations such as Team Rubicon.
The Two Hollows Fire burned about 2,200 acres of industrial timber land in Pearl River County, Mississippi, approximately nine miles southeast of Poplarville. Jason Scott of the Mississippi Forestry Commission said 22 homes and 18 outbuildings were threatened but all were saved. The MFC responded with 19 employees, one fixed wing aircraft, seven bulldozers, and one drone. Multiple VFDs also responded with six engines and one water tender.
The fire was reported Saturday night, February 28. It took 12 hours to contain, and the Mississippi Forestry Commission monitored the fire for an additional 48 hours.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
On March 27, 2019, about 1435 central daylight time, an Airbus AS350B3 helicopter, N818MC, was substantially damaged when it collided with trees and terrain following a loss of engine power near Montgomery, Texas. The commercial rated pilot was seriously injured, one Forest Service crew member was fatally injured, and another crew member sustained minor injuries. The helicopter was owned by Mountain Air Helicopters, Inc and operated by the United States Forest Service (USFS) as a public use helicopter. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the flight which operated without a flight plan.
The helicopter and crew were conducting plastic sphere dispenser (PSD) applications in support of controlled fire operations in an area of the Sam Houston National Forest. Initial information provided by the pilot and surviving crew member report that after completing the application, the helicopter began flying back to the helicopter’s staging area when the engine lost complete power. The helicopter descended into trees and subsequently impacted terrain, coming to rest on its right side. One crew member and the pilot were able to exit the helicopter, however one of the crew members was partially ejected from the helicopter and sustained fatal injuries.
One of the firefighters was deceased on scene. The pilot and a second firefighter were transported to a hospital after rescuers extricated them from the wreckage using jaws and air bags.
It could be another six months or so before the final report is released.
The prescribed fire was in the Sam Houston National Forest about 30 miles southeast of College Station, Texas south of Highway 149.
Flying low and slow in a single-engine helicopter while igniting fire below the aircraft is obviously very, very dangerous. These three fatalities offer very compelling justification for using drones for aerial ignition instead of manned aircraft.
Analysis The purpose of the flight was to assist in the scheduled burn of an 800-acre wooded area. The helicopter was under contract with the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. A Forest Service employee reported that, as the helicopter neared the conclusion of a 61-minute controlled burn mission, he observed it complete a turn to a northerly heading at the southwestern end of the burn area. About 7 seconds later, he heard a sound that resembled an air hose being unplugged from a pressurized air tank. A crewmember, who was the sole survivor, reported that the helicopter was about 20 ft above the tree canopy when the pilot announced that the helicopter had lost power. The helicopter then descended into a group of 80-ft-tall trees in a nose-high attitude and impacted terrain. Witnesses participating in the controlled burn at the time of the accident did not observe any other anomalies with the helicopter before the accident.
The fuel system, fuel pump, and fuel control unit were destroyed by fire, which precluded a complete examination. During the engine examination, light rotational scoring was found in the turbine assembly, consistent with light rotation at impact; however, neither the turbine rotation speed nor the amount of engine power at the time of the accident could be determined. The rotor blade damage and drive shaft rotation signatures indicated that the rotor blades were not under power at the time of the accident. An examination of the helicopter’s air tubes revealed that they were impact-damaged; however, they appeared to be secure and properly seated at their fore and aft ends.
On the morning of the accident flight, the helicopter departed on a reconnaissance flight with 600 lbs of JP-5 fuel. The helicopter returned with sufficient fuel for about 133 minutes of flight, and the helicopter was subsequently serviced with an unknown quantity of uncontaminated fuel for the subsequent 60-minute accident flight. Based on the density altitude, temperature, and airplane total weight at the time of the accident, the helicopter was operating within the airplane flight manual’s performance limitations.
Most of the cockpit control assemblies were consumed by fire except for the throttle, which was found in the “idle” position. Given the crewmember’s report that, after the engine failure, the helicopter entered and maintained a nose-high attitude until it impacted trees and then the ground, it is likely that the pilot initiated an autorotation in accordance with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook engine failure and autorotation procedures. A review of the pilot’s records revealed that he passed the autorotation emergency procedure portion of his most recent Federal Aviation Administration Part 135 examination, which occurred 1 month before the accident, and this may have aided in his recognition of the engine failure and decision to initiate an emergency descent.
Although a weather study indicated that smoke and particulates were present in the area before, during, and after the accident, witnesses reported an absence of smoke near the area where the helicopter lost power and impacted the ground.
Probable Cause and Findings The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: A loss of engine power for reasons that could not be determined due to postaccident fire damage.