Fire-fighting airplanes and helicopters are often seen by the public as an easy fix to wildfires, and provide a boost to morale, but controlling wildfires with aircraft is a complex mission.
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The challenge for Israel is to employ best practices in aerial fire control, which many not resemble the daily air show the public witnessed during the height of the crisis in the Carmel.
As the country takes the next steps, the cornerstone of its wildfire strategy must be fire prevention.
The next lesson is that emergency preparedness requires budgets and focus. Israel needs a national wildfire agency to consolidate fire management experience, coordinate resources and dispatch firefighters to extinguish blazes caused by negligence, arson or a barrage of Katyusha rockets.
When it comes to controlling grass and forest fires, “hit them hard and keep them small” is the mantra of wildfire first responders.
The “initial attack” philosophy uses bomber aircraft (also called air tankers) and helicopters to strike quickly at a fire while it is small, before ground firefighters arrive on the scene. Firefighting aircraft and helicopters are most effective when they are part of a fire management system, rather than working as “lone wolves.”
For example, on the other side of the Mediterranean, Catalonia budgeted 30.7 million euros for forest fire operations in 2010 – an increase of 6.6 million euros from 2009, according to the Catalan Department of the Interior.
On the ground, the Catalan Fire Brigade had 6,528 fulltime and volunteer firefighters during the summer, including 1207 on short summer contracts to fight wildfires.
In the air, 23 helicopters, eight single-engine surveillance/attack aircraft, and three Canadair CL-215T water bombers flown by Spanish Air Force crews supported the Brigade.
Small fires are relatively easy to extinguish, but once they are fanned by high winds they become very challenging and expensive to control.
AIRCRAFT HAVE three key advantages over ground methods – speed, access and observation.
Aircraft can often reach a remote fire quicker than a fire truck, easily attack fires high on a mountain and provide an eye in the sky to monitor a fire.
The challenge for Israel is to get the greatest value for its money, and determine if the new fire-fighting aircraft and helicopters required should be flown by the IAF, civilian crop spraying companies, local airlines, a new government agency or simply leased for a time and flown by pilots from another country. The TV images of large Boeing 747 and Ilyushin IL-76 jets dropping thousands of liters of fire retardant and water on the Carmel were awe-inspiring, but before Israel accepts the idea that “bigger is better,” it should study the vast aerial fire-fighting experience of Australia, Europe, the US and especially Canada.
The Canadian approach to aerial attack uses a combination of sophisticated amphibious water bombers, airport-based retardant bombers and multi-mission helicopters, sometimes on the same fire. Within five minutes of a fire alert, a “bird dog” observation aircraft is airborne with a pilot and air attack officer on board. The attack officer coordinates the aerial attack and communicates with fire crews on the ground. To enhance safety and bombing accuracy, the bird dog pilot will fly a simulated bomb to check for hazards such as power lines obscured by smoke, alert firefighters on the ground with a siren that a bomber is approaching, and guide the bomber pilots to the precise drop point.
Aerial observers can increase the effectiveness of the bomber fleet and reduce the risk to ground crews.
The advantage of the twin-engine CL-215 and CL-415 amphibians is that
they can rapidly reload with 6,000 liters of water by skimming over the
surface of a nearby lake or ocean in about 12 seconds.
This supports a high volume “liters per hour” suppression strategy. In
North America, civilian pilots fly water bombers, while in Europe they
can be flown by civilian or air force crews.
The objective of any bomber crew is to slow the head of the fire and box
in the flanks by soaking grass, brush and trees along the margins, not
trying to extinguish the fire directly. Flying immediately above a fire
is extremely turbulent and the air is filled with smoke. Bombers
dropping fire retardant are able to reduce the flammability of fuels
(trees, brush, grass) in the path of a fire, or delay their combustion.
Retardant bombers must be reloaded from mixing tanks at an airport,
which requires an investment in ground infrastructure.
Helicopters are often the first on the scene of wildfires in Canada,
southern Europe, the US and Australia, and can be used to move
firefighters, pumps, hoses and other equipment, evacuate the injured,
and drop water in the path of a fire or directly on a tree.
Helitack (helicopter attack) teams are positioned at fire stations
during the summer to immediately respond to an alarm. These range from
five-seat Eurocopter AStars to the larger Bell 205A-1 and Bell 212
models once flown by the IAF.
There have been many advances in helicopter mission equipment over the
past two decades, including the transformation of the Sikorsky S-64
Skycrane into a formidable fire attack helicopter that can carry a
10,000 liter payload, and the development of large water buckets for the
Sikorsky S-70 Blackhawk and CH-53 helicopters flown by the IAF.
The Carmel fires were a national tragedy but provided an important lesson in the value of aerial wildfire attack.
It is up to Israel to draw the right conclusions from the fires and act
accordingly to update its fire-fighting strategies, including budgeting
for firefighting aircraft and helicopters. Only then will it be in a
position to send its fire-fighting resources to other countries when
they are needed, just as other nations have come to its aid in the
The writer is an award-winning aviation journalist and aerospace marketing consultant based in Toronto.