2011 Aerial Firefighting Articles

JUN 20 2011
Emergency Services >> Aerial Firefighting: Wallow Fire, Arizona

Spring and early summer bring dry weather to Arizona, raising the danger of wildfires, particularly in the forests of the east of the state. The dry weather has come after an unusually wet winter, which resulted in greater than normal growth of vegetation – this in turn has increased the amount of fuel available for the fires to burn.

Over Memorial Day weekend a fire broke out in the White Mountains, close to the town of Springerville; the US Forest Service designated it the Wallow Fire. Sixteen days later, it had developed into the largest wildfire in the history of Arizona, having surpassed the Rodeo-Chediski Fire of 2002 which burned 460,000 acres and destroyed 426 homes.

The Wallow fire has mainly affected less populated parts of the state and has resulted in less damage to property, but has still scorched a huge area. At the moment, it's the largest of three fires burning in Arizona – further south the Monument Fire is burning near Sierra Vista while the Horseshoe 2 Fire, near Portal has been burning since 8th May.

The US Forest Service has coordinated the response to the Wallow Fire, using a mix of ground and air assets. Units on the ground have included Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHCs) from out of state – these elite fire-fighters specialise in wildfire suppression tactics.

As usual, air assets have featured prominently in the response to the fire. Main base for fixed wing tankers is Winslow, Arizona, which has been home to P-2 Neptunes and P-3 Orions, alongside a number Beech King Airs which have two roles - air attack (providing command and control) and acting as lead aircraft for tankers over the fire.

Helicopters and smaller fixed wing aircraft have also featured heavily. These have operated from closer to the scene of the fire with their base being Show Low Airport, although the helicopters have tended to operate from forward bases even closer to the fire.

Alongside the helicopters, a number of Air Tractor AT-802 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) have operated from Show Low Airport. These aircraft are able to operate from smaller airfields than the traditional air tankers such as the P-3 and have a very short turnaround time.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the largest available air tankers has also been used over the Wallow Fire. “Tanker 911” is one of the small number of converted wide-bodied airliners to be used as fire-fighting aircraft. Based on the DC-10, the aircraft is one of two owned and operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier of Victorville, California.

The DC-10 tanker is classified as a VLAT – Very Large Air Tanker – and is capable of carrying 45,000 litres (12,000 US Gallons) of retardant in its exterior belly tank. Loading of the aircraft takes eight minutes – the load can be dropped in eight seconds.

One of the drawbacks of such a large aircraft is that it requires a suitable airfield, which may be some distance from the fire itself. In the case of the Wallow Fire, the aircraft flew from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, where the US Forest Service has an operations base. The aircraft’s arrival prompted a large amount of coverage in the local media, although the aircraft did not fly on every day of its planned deployment due to conditions in the area of the fire.

Operations to contain the Wallow Fire have been hampered by weather conditions, especially by strong, gusty winds and hot, dry conditions. The wind has made air tanker operations difficult and also sped up the spread of the fire. Despite these setbacks, by 17th June the fire was considered to be 33% contained, having burned through 495,000 acres.

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