Fire Season Off to a Different Start
A conventional fire season would be where the majority of activity sprung up in the American Southwest. In a twisted start for the 2016 fire season, the vast majority of fires have been with our Canadian neighbors. Most news reporting has focused on the huge blaze near Fort McMurray in the northeast corner of Alberta province. This fire has prompted the evacuation of more than one-hundred thousand residents. Twenty-five thousand of them that fled to the north were evacuated a second time when the flames spread in that direction. So far, thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed. Large fires are also out of control in British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario. Most of these blazes are in old growth timber and will only be extinguished by Mother Nature. Aerial resources are already stretched to the max and it appears it will be a long summer for our brothers and sisters to the north.
A Convair 580 Heavy Air Tanker suffered a runway excursion in Northwest Alberta in early May resulting in significant damage to the aircraft. The pilot suffered a cut to his head and the co-pilot was uninjured. It is reported that the pilot had a medical episode that forced the co-pilot to take control during the approach. At the time of the accident, there were forty-nine large fires in Alberta.
The Predictive Services forecast for the continental United States calls for a normal fire season with early hotspots in southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Later in the summer, above average activity is forecast in parts of California, Nevada and southern Idaho.
The current Exclusive Use Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) contract has made it very difficult for contractors to bring new pilots into the industry. The contract states that a Level II pilot can only be on duty six days out of any 14-day work period. That rule in essence requires the contractor to hire two pilots to cover one aircraft. This places an economic burden on the contractor, as well as pilots. Years ago, the practice was to pair a Level II pilot with an experienced Level I pilot for the entire season. This system worked very well and I would like to see the contract amended to address this problem. There is currently a shortage of qualified pilots in the program.
Drones have become a very important tool in fire suppression. They have been used to drop ping pong igniters for prescribed fires and burnout operations, perimeter mapping and to serve as an eye in the sky for Incident Commanders in the absence of an Air Attack aircraft. The rotorwash from a helicopter can often aggravate the fire, but it has been found that drones can be operated much lower because of reduced rotorwash. A drone is being used to find the point of origin on the Fort McMurray Fire for this very reason.
The fire season will be in full swing across the Western United States in June. Even though predictions are for a normal season, there will still be millions of acres burned. Fly safe, stay focused and I hope to see you in the mountains some day.