Posted by John Watt on October 23, 2002 
Report delivered to the panel in Sacramento CA on October 25, 2002



Your assignment is so wide ranging that I find it difficult to believe that you will do more than find more questions than answers at the end of your problem survey period. If the recipients of your report rush forward and make cosmetic changes without due process, review, and evaluation your panel’s time will have been wasted. My hope is that you will be able to help the agencies prioritize the areas that need further study and direct their focus to short and long-term solutions grounded in the interest of operational safety. It is a positive step to have the aerial firefighting process reviewed by outside experts. I appreciate your interest in learning about our program.

The input I offer is based on my thirty-four years of firefighting. Thirty-three years have been with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. As a first line supervisor (Battalion Chief) for nearly 20 years I have served in our Headquarters Command Center, a Field Battalion, and as an Air Attack Officer. I have managed resources, utilized aircraft, and now supervise aircraft. My observations are personal and do not represent the views of my agency in an official capacity.

I make no comments about airtankers themselves; contributors from the aviation community have more expertise than I can offer on aircraft characteristics. I offer my observations in the areas of wildland firefighting, aircraft utilization, retardant, and aerial supervision. Not knowing the firefighting knowledge base of the panel members I have added background information that may add to that base.

In a simple view wildland firefighting is based on several concepts. There must be a combination of fuel, heat, and air to support combustion. This combination is described as the “Fire Triangle”. If the legs of the triangle are broken apart combustion cannot take place. Separating fuel from a fire by cutting and scraping a fire line breaks the triangle; cooling the burning material below the temperature of combustion breaks the triangle; removing air from the combustion process breaks the triangle.

The thermal energy released by a fire; which varies due to the type of fuel, its arrangement as a fuel source, the portion of the fire affected by slope, wind, solar exposure and weather; dictates the tactics the firefighter uses to contain a fire. Tactics are considered to be direct, working on the fire’s edge, or indirect, establishing control lines away from the fire. A successful direct attack requires firefighters to remove fuel or air or cool the burning material at a rate faster than the fire is releasing thermal energy. A successful indirect attack involves building a control line some distance from the fire and either letting the fire burn to the control line or use fire to remove the intervening fuel.

Wildland fires are categorized as initial attack, extended attack, and major. Initial attack fires are those that are contained by initial resources assigned within the first two to three hours.

Extended attack fires require additional resources and are generally contained in the first “burning period”. That is, prior to 10:00 am the following day. Historically, more than 90% of wildland fire starts are contained within the first burning period. Night is the firefighter’s ally. Lower air and fuel temperatures with normally increased relative humidity decreases the thermal output of the fire and gives the firefighter a better chance at building a control line around the fire. The diurnal cycle is such that most fire behavior doesn’t increase until around 10:00 am and reaches peak level about 4:00 pm.

Major fires initially burn at a rate, or in a location, that firefighters are unable to react with sufficient resources to control the fire in the first burning period. Major fires often take weeks or months to contain and control. Major fires are also a product of multiple fire starts in a short period of time. Resources are spread thin, management decisions are needed to prioritize which fires need to be attacked first and utilize scarce resources.

Aerial firefighting utilizes water and additives to assist the ground firefighter by cooling burning material, absorbing thermal energy in changing water from a liquid to a gas, and in the case of retardant, a chemical reaction between the salts and the combustion process which disrupts the process and reduces thermal output.

It should be obvious that all firefighting assets are most effective on initial attack and extended attack fires. In California a coordinated interagency air attack program places initial attack airtankers and helicopters within twenty and thirty minutes, respectively, of the vast majority of the state.

The benefit of this system goes beyond the initial attack response. During an extended attack fire the ability to commit numerous aircraft to the fire often makes the difference by slowing or knocking down a fire before nightfall so that the ground firefighters have a smaller fire to contain overnight. In my experience, a delivery rate of 20,000 to 40,000 gallons of retardant in the first two to three hours is needed to hold a fire in check for the ground crews. This is in concert with two to five helicopters dropping water and fire suppressant foam at a rate up to about 3,000 gallons per hour, per helicopter.

Outside of California the air attack bases are located farther apart. The airtankers are larger (Type 1 and 2). While this sounds like a reasonable mitigation the result is often few airtankers assigned with long (one hour or more) return intervals. Just as pumping water from a fire engine is best done in a continuous stream rather than at odd intervals a continuous application of retardant is best. Helicopters are also wider spaced and often are light aircraft.

The optimum rate of retardant drops is about 10-12 per hour. This allows continuous retardant application rather than having the fire burn through or go around the previous drops. The standard holding period for long term retardant is twenty minutes. If it is not supported by ground action or re-application of retardant the fire will burn through the retardant line. So having aircraft arriving at intervals of 30 to 60 minutes can only be marginally effective.

Major fires create their own set of problems. There is a common misconception in the command structures that you can assign a couple of airtankers to each fire and everyone will be happy. In reality the force of airtankers needs to be consolidated and focused to attack one fire at a time, especially during multiple fire situations. Every fire has moments, minutes, or days when there is the opportunity to efficiently use retardant. Conversely, there are time intervals when no air action can be attempted.

The often seen result is 6-10 airtankers assigned to one base supporting several fires. One or two will fly all day making seven or eight drops with few visible results and the rest will sit. The fires to which they are assigned don’t need the aircraft or are not flyable due to smoke inversions but the command structure won’t release the aircraft for use by others. A fire being “allocated” a finite number of drops per day by the management system does not make strategic or tactical sense.

Retardant formulas are twenty plus years old. It is very difficult to get any retardant product through the USDA testing process. The current product specification is a restricted formulary. The entire process should be performance based. Tell the manufacturers how the product is expected to perform and the qualitative tests to be passed. Let them develop the product, test through third-party certifying laboratories, and submit for approval.

Over the years the “active ingredients” in the retardant have been down graded. Tri-ammonium phosphates have been replaced with di-ammonium phosphates, mono-ammonium phosphates, and mono-ammonium sulphates. My question is, if the ammonia radicals are the active ingredients that interrupt the combustion process why are we throwing less of them at the fire? If it is to keep the cost of the retardant down, are we paying more delivery costs and for a greater quantity of retardant to take more of it to the fire? If so, this increases the hazard exposure to the pilots.

I can’t speak to the liquid concentrate (LC) versus gum-thickened issue. California is a gum-thickened state; LC has to be smuggled in on out of state airtankers. I haven’t seen enough LC dropped to make a comparison. Other Air Tactical Group Supervisors believe it is more effective in timber and other dense fuels because it drips through the upper canopy down to the ground fuel. I think that it should work well since gum-thickened hangs in the tree canopy just as it designed to do. To get gum-thickened to fall through the tree canopy you have to keep loading more retardant into the trees until it starts flowing through due to its own mass.

CDF decided more than 25 years ago to use thickened retardant. At the time airtankers were used mostly on brush fuel types in the state area of responsibility. Thickened retardant hanging in the foliage is appropriate where there is little ground fuel beneath. Large grassland fires were more acceptable as they occurred on fairly remote rangelands with little population density. As population dynamics have changed so has our retardant use. We now routinely drop on grassland fires and in incorporated cities. The characteristic of thickened retardant that works well in brush often is a negative attribute in heavy grass fuel. The retardant hangs in the top of the grass allowing fire to burn underneath. We use higher coverage levels to knock the grass stems to the ground in an attempt to eliminate burn through. Once again we are probably using more retardant to accomplish the task.

One of the newest approved firefighting products (10-15 years) is Type A Foam, a suppressant. It is used in helicopter operations and water scooping airtankers. To my knowledge, Type A foam was developed outside of the USDA process by manufacturers who responded to consumer requests. Recently approved is a type of firefighting gel additive for ground application. Once again, it was developed outside of the system. It is time to take a new, innovative look at aerial fire retardant development and acceptance.

The Incident Command System (ICS) standardizes the chain of command for aerial operations. The leader of the air attack group is the Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS). This supervisor can manage the process alone or establish two assistants to help with the workload. The assistants break off the fixed wing and helicopter resources into separate working groups. They are the Helicopter Coordinator (HELCO) and Airtanker Coordinator (ATCO). It is not necessary to utilize any subordinate position in the ICS until the span of control or complexity of an incident necessitates breaking the workload into smaller management blocks.

As a group supervisor the ATGS works for the Incident Commander (IC) or Operations Section Chief (OSC). Their responsibility is air traffic control over the fire, setting and supervising the aerial tactics based on the objectives set by the IC and as an aerial observer providing fire behavior information to the ground. Based on the number of aircraft assigned, their return interval, topography, and weather the ability of the ATGS to perform all of the functions varies. As fires escalate the ATGS must commit to air traffic control and supervision over working with the ground personnel. Placing one or both of the subordinate positions in service eases the workload and allows the ATGS more time to work with the ground.

The HELCO position is one of the chronically understaffed positions throughout the wildland firefighting community. CDF helicopter pilots and crew supervisors are trained to the HELCO level at a minimum. This enables the HELCO position to be utilized immediately on initial attack and extended attack incidents. I have found very few federal helicopter crew supervisors who are trained at the HELCO level. Most of the personnel filling the positions come from other functions in the agencies, they are not readily accessible until they can be ordered through the ordering process and matched up with a helicopter.

The unit that normally fills the ATCO position is the Lead Plane or Aerial Supervision Module (ASM). The lead plane program came to be in the early days of aerial firefighting. The ATGS as such didn’t exist. There were “fire spotters” or reconnaissance aircraft that were used for detection and ground coordination. There were problems with the ground coordinating air tanker use so the lead plane concept evolved to pre-fly the drop routes, lead the air tanker through the drop, and coordinate the aerial process. Few helicopters were involved in firefighting until the last 15-20 years. The lead plane pilots gradually assumed more responsibilities over the years and became an integral part of the process. They were the earliest form of the ATGS. In many areas of the nation the ATGS program is not fully developed and the bulk of the workload remains with the lead plane. This increased workload has been imposed on a single crewmember.

A new development is the Aerial Supervision Module. The ASM combines the ATGS and the lead, or air tactical pilot, in the same aircraft. The goal is to separate the workload between the two crewmembers and provide a higher level of service to the incident. However, the program is still in its infancy. The “2001 Interagency Aerial Supervision Module Operations Guide” is still a draft document. A few test units are in service. The platform search is wandering all over the map, Cessna Citation Jet 1’s were almost purchased last year and this year excess Army Cobra helicopters were reserved by the USDA for trial conversion into ASM units. The ASM Operations Guide lists five potential seat positions for pilots, instructor pilots, air supervisors and instructors, and a “human aided technology operator”. The Cobra still only has two seats. Deciding which platform, or platforms, will be the most appropriate must be mission driven not driven by collateral functions like agency personnel transportation.

Where is the focus? There aren’t enough qualified ATGS personnel at this time. Like much of the current USDA fire supervision process retirees are hired back to work to fill the empty slots. Many times this past year there were two-dozen unfilled ATGS requests for major fires. Until recently the lead plane program was at half strength. Helicopter coordinators are scarce. The lead plane aircraft are worn out. The proposed ASM program may or may not be the answer to the problems in the entire program.

It is apparent that, just as in military aviation, there is a rivalry between the fixed-wing and helicopter communities. The low cost fixed-wing program held the top of the hill until the capabilities of medium and large helicopters were accepted into the resource base along with an acceptance of a high operating cost. Wildland firefighters, as a population, are more familiar with helicopters than airtankers. The helicopter community is now climbing the hill looking for the top. Before the two communities get into an internally consumptive battle a neutral party needs to be utilized to determine the factual needs of the wildland firefighter and the methodology to meet the needs. Both type of aircraft have attributes where each clearly is more effective for a particular mission. They also have attributes that overlap where either will accomplish the task. Using both types of aircraft in roles that best fit the mission requirements makes the entire air attack program a cohesive force. I recommend a further needs assessment and product delivery design by outside reviewers.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide input. The problems are many yet are totally intertwined. All of us have been working in a hazardous work environment with the lowest possible capital support. I hope that this panel is the first of many reality checks that may open the door to reasonable solutions.

Gentlemen, I wish you well on your venture.

John Watt