Cruising through the off season
Overall, the U.S. fire activity has been very light since Mother Nature’s rain put an end to the fires in the Smoky Mountains last fall. This part of the country has always experienced late season fires, but these were made unusual by the deep drought the region was experiencing and a weather pattern that saw one dry front after another with continued shifting winds. The steep rocky terrain made it difficult to place dozer fire lines and thick timber canopies creates a challenge for aerial applied retardant to have good penetration and coverage. Oftentimes a hand crew digging line on the side of a mountain was the first line of defense.
California and the northern tier of states have seen nearly record amounts of precipitation during the winter. The northern Sierra Nevada is experiencing two to three hundred percent of average snowpack while the majority of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains are well above average. These conditions will not prevent a fire season in the regions, but will certainly delay the onset.
In the Southern Hemisphere, Australia has had a fairly normal fire season while southern South America is experiencing one of the worst seasons in history. The countries of Chile and Argentina are bearing the brunt of these blazes and neither nation has a well-organized wildland firefighting system, instead depending on local volunteers. The majority of the fires are on private lands and historically timber companies and local landowners have funded suppression efforts. However, those assets have been overwhelmed and an international outreach for help has been extended. Several aircraft from around the globe have been dispatched to Santiago, including the Global Supertanker B-747. There have been numerous fatalities, including a SEAT pilot that went down in mid-January. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these fires have been determined to be arson.
The new Exclusive Use SEAT contracts were recently let and the results were disappointing to many, especially to those vendors not awarded a contract. That is just part of life, however, what used to be a relatively simple bidding process has morphed into a very complicated conflagration that seems to be driven by bureaucrats and lawyers. The end results are the same, but the path has become very expensive and impractical. What used to be completed in-house by vendors now requires outside help that costs vendors a lot of money with no guarantee of a return on the investment. Hopefully, the newly elected presidential administration will follow up on its promise to “drain the swamp” and do away with a lot of the bureaucratic red tape.
Looks like the 2017 fire season will be the last for the venerable Lockheed P-2Vs of Neptunes’ fleet. As the Legacy Contracts expire, the classic air tankers will be retired with many already finding homes as gate guardians or museum pieces. It has been a pleasure to have served with these capable ships and their aircrews. This will truly mark the end of an era.
For the rest of the aerial firefighting industry, the 2017 fire season is fast approaching and most training programs have been completed. I hope everyone has a safe and prosperous summer and maybe we will meet in the mountains one day.