Helicopter crash during aerial ignition operations likely caused by loose fuel line

There was one fatality and two serious injuries in the 2019 crash in Texas

Map helicopter crash

This article was first published at Fire Aviation

The National Transportation Safety Board has released their factual report on the crash of an AS350 helicopter that occurred March 27, 2019 during operations on a prescribed fire in Texas. Three people were on board, a pilot and two firefighters. The surviving firefighter and pilot were able to exit the helicopter; however, the second firefighter was partially ejected and sustained fatal injuries. The pilot suffered serious injuries and the surviving firefighter’s injuries were minor. The two injured personnel were transported to a hospital in stable condition after rescuers extracted them from the wreckage using jaws and air bags.

Daniel J. Laird. Tahoe National Forest photo.

The firefighter killed was Daniel Laird, a Captain on the Tahoe Helitack crew in California. He left behind a wife and young daughter.

Mr. Laird was a U.S. Forest Service employee who, along with the other firefighter and the pilot, were on an aerial ignition mission on the Sam Houston National Forest. Their equipment was dropping plastic spheres that burst into flame after hitting the ground, helping to ignite the prescribed fire. The ship came to rest outside the active area of the prescribed fire and there was no additional fire caused by the crash.

The pilot and surviving crew member reported that after completing the application of plastic spheres they began flying back to the staging area when the engine lost total power.

Texas March 27, 2019 helicopter crash aerial ignitions
The March 27, 2019 helicopter crash in Texas. Photo by Sgt. Erik Burse/Texas Department of Public Safety.

Most NTSB accident reports are fairly straightforward, but this report, due to the way it is written, still leaves a small amount of doubt about the cause of the engine failure. However, signs point toward a loose fuel line.

“The fuel line between the firewall and hydro-mechanical unit (HMU) was loose and the required safety wire was not installed,” it says, and no other discrepancies were found. It does not say if the fuel line was loose enough to cause the engine to lose power.

From the NTSB report:

Federal Aviation Administration inspectors from the Houston Flight Standards District Office interviewed Mountain Air’s Director of Maintenance, who stated that on February 14, 2019, the USFS requested to validate the helicopter’s weight and balance. The helicopter was defueled, which involved disconnecting the main fuel line. After the weight and balance were verified, the main fuel line was reconnected. The director of maintenance asked another mechanic to verify that the fuel lines were reconnected, which was reportedly accomplished. The mechanic that accomplished the work informed the operator that he “was confident” that he torqued and secured the line. There was no other maintenance work which involved opening the fuel line after that day. On February 23, 2019, the helicopter’s engine would not light, and the engine’s igniters and/or igniter box was replaced. A maintenance records review found that the helicopter flew about 24.9 hours after the weight and balance was conducted on February 14, 2019.

On March 25, 2019, the pilot reported to management that the fuel pressure light had “flickered” during a flight “a few days before;” the pilot turned on the fuel boost pump, turned it off, and the light never reappeared. The pilot was informed to monitor the situation and report if it occurred again.

Following the accident, the digital engine control unit (DECU) was removed and sent to the manufacturer for data download. On April 11, 2019, the DECU was downloaded under the auspices of the FAA. The last recorded fault was a “P3 drift or engine flame out.”

The helicopter, N818MC, was owned Mountain Air Helicopters, Inc.  The company has five other helicopters and a Cessna 414A registered with the FAA.

In 2015 two were killed in Mississippi under similar circumstances on a prescribed fire when engine failure brought down a helicopter conducting aerial ignition operations. A third person suffered serious injuries.

march 30, 2015 helicopter crash Mississippi aerial ignitions
The helicopter involved in the March 30, 2015 incident in Mississippi, N50KH, is shown with doors removed and Pilot and PSD operator positions visible.

Our take

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.


Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Sean.

Report released for burnover on the Harris Fire near Joliet, MT

One firefighter was severely burned

Engine Harris Fire burnover
Engine in Harris Fire burnover — July 16, 2021. From the report.

A Facilitated Learning Analysis has been released for the burnover that occurred July 16, 2021 on the Harris Fire near Joliet, Montana 25 miles northeast of Red Lodge. Dan Steffensen of Red Lodge Fire Rescue who had six years of experience with wildland fire was on a two-person engine crew when very strong winds suddenly shifted. He attempted to reach safety, but was overrun by the fast moving fire and was injured. Due to the severity of his burns, 2nd and 3rd degree on 45 percent of his body, Mr. Steffensen was flown to the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake City where he was treated for nine weeks.

Mr. Steffensen was operating a nozzle while he and another firefighter who was driving the engine were making a mobile attack on a grass fire. It was burning in pastureland that had not been burned, grazed, or hayed in six years, consisting primarily of dense grass and some sage approximately two feet in height.

In accordance with department common practice, Mr. Steffensen was not wearing his line pack and fire shelter, as neither he nor the driver would ever get past the end of the hardline hose. In that first section, Mr. Steffensen was always in the driver’s direct line of sight, and the three-to four-foot flames “took down easy” and quickly. 

The firefighters did not know that minutes before the burnover the National Weather Service had issued a Significant Weather Advisory for thunderstorms moving in their direction. “Wind gusts of 50 to 60 mph are possible with these storms,” it said. “A gust to 63 mph was reported in Big Timber with this activity.”

When the wind gusts arrived at the fire, increasing from 10 mph to about 55 mph, a helicopter pilot who had been dropping water was forced to jettison the water from his bucket.

Engine Harris Fire burnover

As the wind speed suddenly increased and the direction shifted, Mr. Steffensen and the engine were entrapped by flames. The firefighter driving the engine had no visibility and knowing there was a cliff nearby, stayed in place and let it burn over the engine. He later described it as being “hotter than hell in the cab” for the 20-30 seconds of the burnover. He was not injured.

From the report:

For Dan, those few seconds between when he recognized that they had a problem and when the flame front hit were not enough for him to return to the engine or reach the black. He later said “I’ve been on many fires, [and] I’ve never seen one come out of nowhere so fast. All it took was the wind switch.” Although he was only 15 or so feet from the burned portion of the field that he and Scott had just left, the fire was traveling too fast for him to get there. With no line gear on him, and no time to deploy a shelter even if he had carried it, he was left with just his PPE to protect him from the 20-foot high, fast-moving flame front, which hit him after slamming into the driver’s side of the engine and eddying under to the passenger side.

Below are the Key Takeaways from the report:

Almost every single experienced wildland firefighter reading this analysis will find the series of events recounted here familiar: an initial attack in light, flashy fuels with rapidly changing conditions. It can, therefore, be tempting to write this off as an unavoidable situation in an inherently risky profession. While the FLA team agrees that accepting some level of risk while fighting fire is inevitable, we do believe there are some key lessons for the reader to consider, should they ever find themselves in a similar situation.

1) Remember the importance of PPE and wearing it correctly. Dan’s injuries would have been much worse had he not been wearing his Nomex, a layered shirt, gloves, and a helmet in the appropriate manner.

2) Remaining in your vehicle during a burnover may be the best option in light, flashy fuels. Scott was able to walk away from the Harris Fire that day with no physical injuries. The comparison of the conditions inside and outside of E78 suggest that this was the safest place he could have been in that moment.

We also encourage you to reflect on the following questions, especially as they relate to fast-moving initial attack scenarios:

1) When planning your escape route, how much time do you really have to react? It was repeated throughout this analysis, both from individuals involved in the incident and those not involved, how common it is in our current firefighting environment to operate outside of the black. In this case, however, there were some slightly unusual circumstances, such as the high grassy fuel loads, that contributed to the unintended outcome. Take the time to consider such factors, as well as harder to predict factors such as unexpected wind shifts, when planning an escape route.

2) Is the higher level of risk that comes with missing elements of LCES acceptable to you? If yes, what values must be threatened for you to accept that higher level of risk? When asked, Scott shared that his major lesson learned from the day was, “what were we doing here?” With time to reflect, he regretted entering an unburned area with an inadequate escape route to save a few acres of grass, especially when an alternate suppression strategy may have been as effective at keeping the fire on the plateau.

3) What is the process in your organization for quickly communicating special weather statements and advisories about changing conditions? In this case, the special weather statement was issued only minutes before the thunderstorm impacted wind speed, direction, and fire activity at the scene, and no one on the fire received this information in time to react and reevaluate their tactics.

4) When the forecast restates the same thing every day, how do you ensure that you still account for the potential impacts of extreme weather during initial attack? Even if those on the hill had received the special weather statement in a timely manner, it had been hot and dry with a chance of thunderstorms in the area for weeks. Such repetition during fire season often results in the line of thinking that “nothing bad happened yesterday, so today we should be fine again.” Even for the most experienced firefighters, extreme fire weather should still be of note; in fact, these are often the firefighters that must battle most against complacency to objectively consider the potential risk posed by extreme fire weather.

5) Is your assessment of fuels valid? Just as in timber litter fuel types, there can be significant variations in grass fuels with regards to fuel loading and arrangement. In many areas of the west, grazing lands are enrolled in conservation programs that govern the frequency of grazing, haying, or burning, resulting in significantly higher amounts of fuel on the ground. How do you make sure that your assumptions about fire behavior and spread rates are still valid as you make decisions about tactics?

Engine Harris Fire burnover

Report released for the bushfire that burned much of Kangaroo Island in South Australia

The findings included insufficient numbers of firefighting resources, and working against the chain of command

Satellite photo showing the fires on Kangaroo Island
Satellite photo showing the fires on Kangaroo Island South Australia, January 6, 2020 local time. NASA.

A report on the 210,000-hectare bushfire that burned almost half of Kangaroo Island southwest of Adelaide, Australia found that there was a shortage of resources, a lack of strategic planning, and cases of not following, or actively working against, the chain of command. The fire killed two people and nearly 60,000 livestock, and destroyed 87 homes.

The 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia was one for the history books. The 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres) blackened were more than the area burned in the Black Saturday 2009 and Ash Wednesday 1983 bushfires combined.

One of the largest was the Ravine Fire that spread east across the 88-mile long Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia, burning 48 percent of the island, more than half a million acres.

The South Australian Country Fire Service (SACFS) commissioned a private company, C3 Resilience, to conduct an independent review of the Ravine Fire to “assist with ongoing operational improvement.” The resulting 95-page report states that it is based on 6,359 observations, 522 surveys, and 63 individual and group sessions.

The SACFS said upon releasing the report, “The men and women of the CFS acted in the best interest of the community despite extremely limited resources and facing circumstances which had never previously been anticipated. Many of these men and women did so at their own risk to their welfare and safety. The report notes many positives and clearly defines the need for better resourcing for the CFS.”

Some excerpts from the document:

  • Due to the operational load within the organization, the process of only sending endorsed IMTs [Incident Management Teams] ceased, replaced with an ad-hoc manner of the selection of staff for IMTs including field command positions. This lack of competence resulted in communication deficiencies between the ground, lack of integration of local knowledge. The breakdown at times with communications across the IMT in the planning and operations cells, for example, on the Ravine fire provided a basis for the failure of operational planning occurring at critical times.
  • The design of doctrine, combined with a lack of capability and competency programs for regional staff along with fatigue led to the RCC [Regional Command Center] being overwhelmed. This led to a lack of strategic resource planning, including using what capability existed within their own region to support operations on KI [Kangaroo Island].
  • Much of the good work completed was discounted by a culture of some not following, or actively working against, the chain of command. Secondly, there was a lack of accountability by some crews for the mopping up and blacking out procedures led to further fire spread. The lack of technology gave the IMT little intelligence picture to work to in collecting the achievement of tactics where successful, and detecting issues of lack of accountability where they occurred.
  • The SACFS [South Australian Country Fire Service] has a lessons management system, however it failed implementation for the KI fires, as the lessons have not translated into planning across coordinated fire fighting agencies.
  • The fires on KI needed every capability they could get. The insertion of the ADF [Australian Defense Force] was a welcome one, however the tasking process took some time to adjust to and work through. The integration of the forestry industry was mixed between fully integrated and not at all.
  • There is significant opportunity to achieve good community outcomes by further integrating FFUs [Farm Firefighting Units] into operations of fires across KI. By all parties agreeing on a coordination model, and common standards of PPE [personal protective equipment], safety standards and how to communicate, it will only increase positive outcomes for the community.
  • Aviation responded well to support ground crew efforts. The establishment of a TRZ [Temporary Response Zone] could have assisted with a more rapid deployment to the Ravine Complex. An even closer relationship between IMT and aviation specialists will increase the outcome for fires on KI to integrate air and ground tactics.
Ravine Fire Kangaroo Island map
Satellite photo from January 3, 2020 local time showing the Ravine Fire on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. The red dots represent heat. Later the wind shifted, blowing the smoke toward the northeast. NASA.

Report released for fire shelter deployment on Bridger Foothills Fire in Montana

Three firefighters — only two fire shelters

Bridger Foothills Fire entrapment
From the Facilitated Learning Analysis for the Bridger Foothills Fire entrapment.

The report released Friday about the burnover of three firefighters on the Bridger Foothills Fire is jaw-dropping — and not only because there were three firefighters with only two fire shelters to protect them as the flames swept over. It is a well written and thorough report but lists few lessons to be learned, leaving it up to us to read between the lines.

The incident occurred about three miles northeast of Bozeman, Montana on September 5, 2020 when there were 115 active large wildfires burning in the United States which at that time had consumed 3,000,000 acres. Over 22,550 wildland firefighters and forestry technicians were committed across the nation. The August Complex of fires in Northern California had burned 305,000 acres which would be less than one third of its total size when it finally slowed down in the Fall after blackening over one million acres. In August and September there was a serious shortage of personnel to staff the fires. Few if any areas had an adequate number of firefighting resources to initial attack new fires or contain those that had been growing for weeks.

The initial attack on the Bridger Foothills Fire on September 4 included four smokejumpers, “several engines,” plus helicopters and air tankers. According to statistics on the national Situation Report at the end of the day on September 5, the second day of the fire, there were a total of 99 personnel on the fire. Five structures had been confirmed as destroyed and it was on its way to ultimately burning 28 homes and growing to 8,224 acres.

The 37-page report can’t be fairly summarized in a few paragraphs here. I suggest you check it out yourself, then leave a comment below with your impressions.

But briefly, three members of a Montana state helitack crew attacked the fire on September 4, spent the night on the fire, then during the afternoon of the next day were overrun by the fire in the meadow that served as their helispot. They attempted to set an “escape fire”, as used on the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949, to burn off the grass and sage before the fire reached them, but the grass was too green to easily ignite. As the fire approached them two men deployed their aluminized and insulated fire shelters designed to reflect radiant heat, but the third had failed to replace the shelter in his pack he had removed days earlier to lighten his load while on physical training hikes. Two of the men, both large individuals, crammed into one shelter that was made to accommodate one person. The three of them only suffered fairly minor injuries and walked away to a point where they could be transported to a hospital.

From the report:

The firefighters involved in this deployment came to decisions that made sense to them at the time. To learn from this unintended outcome, it is important that you read this without the assumption that this could never happen to you. Instead, please consider that you read this with the luxury of hindsight bias. Our intent is that you find the lessons that you can apply to your program to hopefully avoid experiencing what these folks went through.

Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, there were many things that contributed to the entrapment. If only one of them had occurred, the three helitack crewmen probably would not have been burned over. But the cumulative effect of numerous issues led to this near-fatal event.

Firefighters are familiar with the Swiss Cheese Model of Accident Causation.

Swiss Cheese model
Swiss cheese model by James Reason published in 2000.

The New York Times published on December 5 a version of the model adapted for the current pandemic:

James T. Reason's Swiss Cheese Model
James T. Reason’s Swiss Cheese Model as applied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of our readers could study the report and substitute events that happened on the Bridger Foothills Fire for the layers in the Swiss Cheese Model.

Let us know in a comment below what you’re thinking. I’ll get it started with a few:

  • Very few firefighting resources initially attacked the fire.
  • Communication issues were mentioned many times in the report. Almost every very serious incident within an incident has communication problems.
  • Air tankers dropped retardant on the west side of the fire but not the east side that day. A person who was on the fire told Wildfire Today that if retardant had been applied to secure the east side it may have prevented the blowup. With the national fire situation at the time, air tankers may not have been available to continue dropping retardant that afternoon. (Would it have made a difference if the air tanker base 73 air miles away at West Yellowstone had not recently been closed and converted to a call when needed base?)
  • At times there was confusion about the location of the three entrapped firefighters. If a safety officer or Division Supervisor had known the exact location of the firefighters and the real time location of the fire, it may have made a difference — there might have been enough time to extract them by helicopter before the smoke and the flaming front made it impossible. THIS RECURRING ISSUE COULD BE SOLVED WITH OFF THE SHELF LOCATION TRACKING SYSTEMS for personnel and the fire! Federal and state wildfire organizations need to make this an urgent priority! This is a life-safety issue and the tools should have been deployed years ago by the federal and state agencies. Funding is not an acceptable excuse. Neither is apathy. Dig deep to find the motivation and the money.

Below is the section of the report that describes the deployment itself, but does not include what led up to it. The names have been changed.

The Deployment
“What do you mean you don’t have your shelter?”

Charlie frantically worked to light off the sage with his fusee. Hands shaking, the sage was lighting better than the grass had before. But it didn’t matter – there was no more time to burn – the fire was coming up fast on him and his crew from both the south and the east.

Charlie turned around to his crewmembers and noticed that one of them, Sam, was already in his shelter. The spot fire that had cut-off their last possible escape route was now well established on the slope below them, and the trees were crowning out with flame lengths of over 100 feet. The wind was blowing so hard that his helmet went flying off his head. Next thing Charlie realized, he was back at the small oval that they had cleared of ground fuels, looking down on his other crewmember Casey, who was laying in the fetal position with his chaps slung over his back and gear bags piled up around him.

“Get in your f**king shelter!” Charlie screamed to Casey.

“I don’t have it – share with me!” Casey shouted back.

“What do you mean you don’t have your shelter?! Did it blow away?!”

It hadn’t blown away, although that would have been easy in the “hurricane-like” winds that were whipping across the hillside in all directions. Casey had taken it out of his pack a few weeks earlier for PT hikes, and never put it back in.

But ultimately, why the shelter wasn’t on the hill did not matter. At this moment, Charlie realized how dire of a situation they were in. Casey was roughly 6’2” and weighed in at around 225 lbs, and Charlie was around 6’ and 190 lbs. And if they were both going to survive this flame front, they would have to squeeze into his one shelter as best as they could.

They could both feel the heat now, and the fire was “cooking.” Charlie ripped out his shelter and struggled to open it. Unlike Sam’s shelter, which Sam later described as “shaking out just like a practice shelter, [or] better,” opening Charlie’s shelter felt like trying to open a ball of tin foil. With Charlie and Casey each pulling at it, they fought to get it open, and valuable moments were lost as they furiously tried to shake it out. The moment they opened the shelter, Casey and Charlie locked eyes, then glanced up at the flames towering above them before they dropped to the ground. The updraft winds at that point were so strong, they had to fight to reach the dirt.

The last-minute nature of their deployment meant that neither Casey nor Charlie were completely in the shelter. Casey had dropped to get his head facing to the north and lined up with the hole he had dug and filled with water, with his legs largely sticking out of the shelter. Charlie was facing nearly the opposite direction, in a crouching position. In this arrangement, neither firefighter could get a seal on the shelter, and embers were blowing in just as fast as Charlie could sweep them out. Casey screamed over the radio that they had deployed, a transmission that was copied by air attack. Charlie then took the radio and remembers transmitting that there were three of them who had deployed, with only two shelters. Air attack, who confirmed that three people had deployed, did not recall hearing that there were only two shelters.

Post-deployment fire shelter Bridger Foothills Fire

Charlie later described how, in their initial arrangement, “I couldn’t take it anymore, I couldn’t get air, and it felt like I was in a microwave.” In this moment of desperation, Charlie stood up, thinking nothing could be worse than being crammed into the shelter, in the heat, without any way to breathe. Charlie immediately realized how much worse it could get with the fire burning all around and was forced to dive back into the shelter. This time, Charlie was shoulder to shoulder with Casey, which allowed them to get a slightly better seal.

The experience, however, was still far from comfortable. Unable to breathe and battling through the extreme heat, Charlie “was certain we were gonna die. [I thought] every second was our last second.” Casey described the sensation of trying to breathe as like “if anyone has ever been cleaning around you and it’s extremely potent – it’s like that but it’s on fire.” To try to alleviate the heat, he began splashing plastic water bottles on himself and Charlie, squeezing 4-5 bottles out along their backs.

Sam was equally certain that they were not going to survive. “100%, I thought we were dead. No doubt … I couldn’t breathe.” To try to get a breath, he wet down his shirt and started digging a hole into the ground. Although opening the shelter had been easy, Sam struggled in the wind to create a strong seal. For the fifteen or so minutes that Sam remained in the shelter, he was absolutely terrified for his life.

Casey and Charlie emerged from their shared shelter around 8 minutes after they first got in, after the initial flame front had passed. Their surroundings, however, still resembled a hellscape. Casey’s line gear, which he had been unable to throw very far away from the deployment site, was on fire and burning Charlie’s leg, so Charlie kicked it farther away. Outside of the circle, the cans of bug spray and sunscreen in the bag exploded. Combined with the combustion from the remaining fusees, the explosions caused the gear to burn down to nothing.

Even without the flames, the heat, smoke, and winds were still so intense that Charlie and Casey reentered the shelter, where they remained for another eight or so minutes, getting continuously hammered by the wind. Eventually, while getting oxygen was still nearly impossible, it became clear that they were going to be miserable whether they were in the shelter or out. Knowing that everything was nuked around them, and the worst of the heat had passed, they emerged from the shelter again. But the beating afflicted by the fire was still far from over.

Sam’s experience: 

“I deployed my shelter and within probably a minute or two could hear, feel, and see the fire going over and around us. The inside of my shelter glowed red … there was no place to get a cool clean breath. Embers blew inside my shelter and I would push them out. I tried to dig in the ground to get a clean breath and was unsuccessful. At some point I remember Charlie asking how I was doing. I responded with ‘Not good man, I can’t f**king breathe.’ I thought about my wife and kids and knew with some certainty that I was dead.”


Notes on fire shelter use
Notes on fire shelter use from the report.

Report released on burnover of firefighters on Silverado Fire

Two firefighters are still in critical condition in Orange County, California

Silverado Fire spot fires burnover firefighters injured

The two firefighters that suffered very serious injuries while battling the Silverado Fire are still in critical condition, on ventilators, and in induced comas. However, they have survived multiple surgeries and are improving, but they have a long and tough road ahead.

They are members of a 17-person Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) hand crew that was assigned to the fire east of Irvine, California on October 26, 2020 when the fire burned over their location. In addition to the two firefighters still hospitalized, another suffered radiant heat injuries and other firefighters had superficial heat injuries.

The OCFA has released an Informational Summary Report, or Green Sheet, about the incident.

The burnover occurred at about noon during a Red Flag Warning for strong offshore winds, low humidity, and dry fuels. The weather conditions at the time were 60 degrees, 8 percent relative humidity, and winds out of the north-northeast at 16 mph with gusts to 42 mph. The fire was burning in grass and brush, with live fuel moistures for the chamise and sage at or below the critical levels.

Map, Silverado Fire burnover October 26, 2020
Map, Silverado Fire burnover October 26, 2020. OCFA.

Very briefly, the firefighters were along an indirect mid-slope dozer line with fire below and unburned vegetation on both sides. They were firing out below the  line, igniting with drip torches until the wind kept blowing out the flames on the wicks, so they switched to using fusees. Several spot fires occurred on the slope above the dozer line which were suppressed by the crew. Another spot fire which grew rapidly about 80 feet above the line was attacked by eight firefighters with hand tools and three engine crew members with a fire hose.

Shortly thereafter, a second rapidly spreading spot fire started below and upwind of the eleven firefighters. They escaped from the area as best they could back down to the dozer line.

Escape routes Silverado Fire

Five hand crew members were impacted by radiant and convective heat, reporting singed hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes while stumbling out of the way of the second spot fire’s path. The remaining three hand crew members, according to the report, “were impacted significantly”.

The two most seriously injured personnel were transported with paramedics in an engine and a hand crew vehicle to Orange County Global Medical Center, arriving at 12:32 p.m. and 12:57 p.m.

There was no mention in the report of fire shelters, either being carried or deployed by the firefighters. We have unconfirmed information that they had fire shelters but there wasn’t enough time to deploy them.

The Silverado Fire burned 12,466 acres and destroyed 5 structures.

In 2007 in Orange County 12 firefighters on the Santiago Fire were entrapped and deployed fire shelters, but there were no serious injuries.

Silverado Fire map, October 28, 2020.
Silverado Fire map, October 28, 2020.

Australia’s Royal Commission on bushfires recommends aerial firefighting fleet

Proposes national emergency warning app

Australia Royal Commission
Australia Royal Commission photo

The unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia resulted in the devastating loss of life, property and wildlife across the nation. After the smoke cleared a Royal Commission was directed to work out not only how to prevent the severity of future bushfire seasons, but all natural disasters.

The Chair of the Commission, Mark Binskin, is a former Chief of the Air Force and Chief of the Defense Force. In the foreword to the report he wrote:

There are lessons for us all. Governments, essential service providers, insurers, charities, communities and individuals should consider what steps they must take across all phases of natural disasters to improve national natural disaster arrangements. It is undoubtedly in the national interest to do so.

The findings of the commission are extensive and comprehensive, as are the 80 recommendations in the 594-page report. During the 2019-2020 fire season, Australia experienced a live stress test of their system and identified lessons they learned, many of which can be also be applied to North America and the Mediterranean area where residents have to learn to live with wildfires.

Here are excerpts from the report.

National Emergency Response capability

  • Over 9,800 fire personnel were deployed on bushfires during the 2019-2020 season.
  • National resource sharing arrangements need to be strengthened to support resource sharing in times of crisis. We consider the development of a national register of resources would support situational awareness, and resource sharing, and inform national capability development.
  • We consider that states and territories should update and implement plans to achieve interoperable communication for emergency services. We also recommend expediting efforts to create Public Safety Mobile Broadband to improve communications capabilities for emergency responders.
  • Volunteers make up the majority of the fire and emergency services workforce in Australia. Volunteers need to be supported and enabled to participate in a way that respects the values of volunteerism, and considers the competing demands on their time. Increasing employment protections for fire and emergency services volunteers represents a way to support volunteer participation into the future.
  • Some states and territories use data modeling and forecasting, or are working on planning tools to forecast resource needs. In Victoria, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) have been working with CSIRO to develop a planning tool to forecast firefighting resources requirements for 2020 and 2050 for all fire regions in Australia based on the Forest Fire Index and two climate change scenarios. State and territory governments should have a structured process to regularly assess the capacity and capability requirements of fire and emergency services, in light of both current and future natural disaster risk.
  • Australian, state and territory governments should consider whether national training for incident management roles would assist to increase numbers of trained personnel and support interstate deployments. These governments should also consider the development of an appropriate base standard of training or competency for roles that would obtain automatic national recognition.
  • Australian, state and territory governments should conduct multi-agency, national-level exercises, not limited to cross-border jurisdictions. These exercises should, at a minimum: (1) assess national capacity, inform capability development and coordination in response to, and recovery from, natural disasters, and (2) use scenarios that stress current capabilities.
  • Fire and emergency service volunteers should not suffer significant financial loss as a result of prolonged periods of volunteering during natural disasters. State and territory governments should continue their work to support and recognize fire and emergency services volunteers, including self-employed volunteers. State and territory governments should continue to support, recognize and incentivize employers who release employees to serve as fire and emergency services volunteers.

Australia volunteer firefighters

Capabilities of national aerial firefighting

  • The Victorian Inspector-General for Emergency Management observed that, “The effectiveness of aerial firefighting resources and the deployment system in Victorian environments has not been extensively evaluated. A greater understanding of how aerial assets can support suppression efforts including first attack would allow Victoria to make more informed requests for aerial firefighting assets and ensure any assets provided are used to their greatest effect.” The governments of ACT, SA and Victoria also told us that they consider further research is required to improve aerial firefighting tactics, products and their effectiveness.
  • Aerial firefighting capabilities vary between the states and territories, with some jurisdictions, such as the ACT, not owning any aircraft. Other jurisdictions own aircraft. For example, NSW owns a fleet consisting of three helicopters and the ‘Marie Bashir’ LAT, and has purchased a further four aircraft (two fixed-wing and two helicopters) which are expected to be available in 2020. [Note from Bill: The LAT is a 737 air tanker recently purchased from Coulson Aviation. The two fixed wing aircraft are Cessna Citation Lead/Intelligence jets; the two helicopters are Bell 412s. More info.]
  • There is merit in considering what further benefits could be derived from even greater [interstate] collaboration in the use of available aerial firefighting resources.
  • We heard that the current terms of aircraft service contracts are a disincentive for some Australian-based service providers. The majority of the providers we heard from told us that short contracts and minimal work during the off season make it unviable to invest in expensive aviation equipment. Contracts traditionally engage providers for 84 service days (70 in Tasmania) within the fire season, but we heard that more contracted service days would allow providers to invest in more equipment and offer greater value for money to fire agencies.
  • The Aerial Application Association of Australia also told us that the length of contracts is insufficient to encourage industry to invest in aircraft and creates significant uncertainty in securing long-term finance. The Aerial Application Association of Australia also criticizes the short lead times for developing contract proposals with NAFC.
  • The limited availability of aviation support personnel in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season limited the sharing of personnel between jurisdictions and led to a greater reliance on personnel sourced from overseas.
  • The optimal use of aerial firefighting is in the early stages of a bushfire. For an aircraft to provide effective assistance in the suppression of a bushfire it needs to be rapidly dispatched with minimal travel time and with necessary logistical support systems in place. Victoria, SA and WA each employ ‘pre-determined dispatch’-the purpose of which is to reduce the time for the aircraft to reach the fire -described as a ‘game changing system that should be adopted nationally’.
  • On some occasions during the 2019-2020 bushfire season states and territories were unable to call upon additional aviation services when needed.
  • Aviation services funded, in whole or in part, by the Australian Government should be shared between jurisdictions according to the greatest need.
  • The availability of overseas-based aviation services during Australian fire seasons, particularly LATs, may be reduced by the increasing convergence of fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres.
  • We also heard that Australian-licensed pilots were not licensed to operate foreign-registered aircraft used in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season. For example, with the exception of the NSW-owned LAT, none of the LATs used in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season were Australian-registered, and therefore Australian-licensed pilots were precluded from operating them.
  • The Australian Federation of Air Pilots told us that it has approximately 5,000 Australia-based members employed as commercial pilots. This suggests Australia may have the potential to recruit and train the necessary expertise to operate firefighting aircraft currently sourced from overseas, including LATs, if such aircraft were owned and registered in Australia.
  • Australian, state, and territory governments should work together to continue to improve Australia’s collective, Australian-based and operated, aerial firefighting capabilities. Though we see merit in the continued use of overseas-based aviation services and air crew in some instances, Australia’s current reliance represents a vulnerability, as demonstrated during the 2019-2020 bushfire season.
  • The development of a modest Australian-based and registered national fleet of VLAT/LAT [Very large Airtanker/Large Air Tanker] aircraft and Type-1 helicopters, jointly funded by the Australian, state and territory governments, will enhance Australia’s bushfire resilience. A standing national fleet would ensure that the states and territories have the necessary resources to call upon during periods of high demand, without the need to reduce the operational capabilities of other jurisdictions. This standing fleet should also include situational awareness and support capabilities which may benefit from a nationally coordinated approach. Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capability should be supported by ongoing research and evaluation to inform specific capability needs, and the most effective aerial firefighting strategies.
  • Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capability may be supplemented by overseas-based aviation services, where additional capacity is forecast to be required and available.

Australia Air-Crane helicopter fire

Role of Australian Defense Forces

  • Improve understanding of Australian Defense Force capabilities.
  • State and territory governments should take steps to ensure that there is better interaction, planning and ongoing understanding of Australian Defense Force capabilities and processes by state and territory fire and emergency service agencies and local governments.
  • The ADF has finite capacity and capability. The capacity and capability of the ADF to respond to natural disasters can be affected by its commitment to its priorities, both domestic and international. The ADF should not be seen as a first responder for natural disasters, nor relied on as such.
  • There should be greater representation by the ADF in state, territory and local government exercises, briefings, and planning for natural disasters.
  • State and territory governments should take steps to ensure that there is better interaction, planning and ongoing understanding of Australian Defense Force capabilities and processes by state and territory fire and emergency service agencies and local governments.
Evacuees are transported
Evacuees are transported from Mallacoota, Victoria to awaiting ships as part of Operation Bushfire Assist. ADF photo.

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