Op-Ed: Proper Firefighting Aircraft Can Help Combat Local Fires

Monday, 30 Apr 2012, 12:52:00 AM

Tony Morris

Tony Morris, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Tony Morris, Columnist

Wildfires are a reality in Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) communities. Due to an adequate lack of rainfall during the “rainy season” this year residents of Topanga and adjacent WUI communities such as Malibu, Pacific Palisades, and even Santa Monica can be vulnerable to wind-driven wildfires during Red Flag days, when winds are more than 25 miles per hour (mph) and humidity is less than 15 percent.

Firefighting aircraft are a powerful “tool in the firefighting toolbox.” Los Angeles County Fire Department’s (LACoFD) Air Operations has arguably the best equipped and trained county aerial firefighting fleet in the country. LACoFD Air Operations operates three 1,000-gallon capacity Sikorsky S-70 A Firehawks and six Bell 412 helicopters. Should there be an emergency wildfire alert LACoFD Air Ops in cooperation with Los Angeles City Fire Department Air Ops can deploy a fleet of helicopters together with ground firefighting units.

LACoFD helicopter pilots are trained to fight wildfires at night if the situation requires. The U.S. Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management has not yet approved helicopter operations with night vision goggles (NVG).

This year with the grounding of seven Lockheed P-3, 3,000-gallon Large Air Tankers by the U.S.F.S. Fire and Aviation Management there is a critical need for firefighting aircraft in the U.S.

Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) such as Tanker 910 and its sister ship, Tanker 911, are based at the Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA) at Victorville, Calif., and operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, can drop 11,600 gallons in 5/8th of a mile.

For this year’s wildfire season Governor Jerry Brown issued an Executive Order to CAL FIRE canceling the exclusive use contract of 10 Tanker Air Carrier after five years of effective aerial firefighting in California. A few years ago residents of Malibu and surrounding communities remember Tanker 910 flying low over the hills. Ironically, when the large aircraft dropped its 11,600 gallons there were some 911 calls from Malibu residents who thought the converted DC-10 was on fire when it was dropping red dye mixed with long term fire retardant on a wildfire.

Tanker 910 and Tanker 911 have been deployed on 420 missions in over 70 wildfires in numerous states. The amount of retardant dropped by these VLATs to halt the spread of a wildfire before it burns out of control provides a major firefighting capability. Tanker 910’s capacity is the equivalent of ten (10) CAL FIRE S2-T air tankers.

As U.S. F.S. Fire and Aviation Management considers the choice of Next Generation Air Tankers it should focus on the use of a Lockheed C-130 LAT with a 5000 gallon capacity tank proposed by Coulson Aviation USA.

The Large Air Tanker (LAT) firefighting fleet under contract to the Forest Service is now reduced to 11 aircraft consisting of aging Lockheed P2Vs.

There is currently no Federal funding to purchase a fleet of Lockheed C-130 XJs, a purpose-built aircraft equipped for firefighting , search and rescues and carrying freight. The C-130 XJ will be 10 to 15 percent cheaper than a new C-130 J with a MAFFS II (modular aerial firefighting system) which has been discussed as the aircraft of choice by the Forest Service.

This year the eleven Large Air Tankers available to the Forest Service to fight wildfires on Federal lands will be severely tested. Even if partial funding for a small number of Lockheed C-130 XJ’s is secured new aircraft would take thirty months to be manufactured.

With millions of Americans living in WUI communities adjacent to Federal lands such as the Angeles National Forest there is a need to provide a solution to the lack of firefighting aircraft in the U.S.

The Beriev Be-200, a purpose-built 3000 gallon water scooping LAT needs to be Certified by the FAA and the Interagency Air Tanker Board (IAB) before it can scoop water off Malibu or Santa Barbara. The Santa Maria, Calif., based aviation company International Emergency Services

(IES) has ordered ten Be-200s, the largest order received by Beriev Aircraft Company.

The Canadair CL-415,1,620-gallon water scooping air tanker has been available in the U.S. since 1994. The CL-415 is deployed in the provinces of Canada, Italy’s Civil Protection owns 19 of the aircraft, while France’s Securite Civile operate twelve CL-415s. There are no permanently deployed CL-415s in the U.S.

Numerous wildfires in Southern California could be extinguished with a permanently based fleet of 4 to 6 CL-415s. The aircraft are purpose-built for Initial Attack so that they can take off and respond in minutes to a wildfire 911 call. The aircraft can scoop out of numerous bodies of fresh water and the Pacific Ocean.

San Diego city and County have experience a pair of $2 billion wildfires in the past ten years. Two CL-415s could have provided critical Initial Attack capability to knock out the Cedar Fire but the aircraft were not available.

A Public-Private Partnership, or consortium, should be considered to fund a fleet of CL-415s for Southern California. Given the fact that the state of California’s deficit prevents it from funding the purchase of a fleet of CL-415s, a consortium composed of the state, counties and Private Enterprise should be organized. Once again, creative “outside the box” financial solutions are necessary to address the growing threat to residents of California and the U.S.

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