Challenges in aerial firefighting

May 28, 2024

With insights from Paul Petersen, Executive Director of UAFA, FSJA explores how outdated aerial firefighting strategies are failing against increasingly severe wildfires

Communities across the United States are increasingly vulnerable to wildfires, which are growing more frequent and destructive each year.

Paul Petersen, the Executive Director of the United Aerial Firefighters Association (UAFA), said of this stark reality: “Once-in-a-generation wildfires are becoming an annual occurrence, scorching communities, displacing residents, and leaving behind a trail of devastation.”

This escalation points to an ecosystem in distress, where natural fire events have intensified, overpowering the existing response strategies.

The system in place, according to Petersen, fails to meet these challenges, leaving communities vulnerable and firefighters facing insurmountable odds.

Impact of fragmented response systems

The structural inefficiencies within the current wildfire response mechanism pale in comparison to effective, coordinated urban firefighting operations.

Petersen described the existing set up for wildfire response as a: “complex web of state, local, and federal agencies often struggling to work in unison.”

This disunity has led to significant delays in mobilizing essential resources against rapidly spreading wildfires.

The Texas Panhandle fire exemplifies the dire consequences of such delays: “By the time aerial firefighting assets arrived, days had passed, allowing the blaze to consume vast swathes of land, killing two people, injuring five firefighters and inflicting billions of dollars in economic damage,” Peterson said.

Petersen is calling for a unified, national strategy to address these recurrent, devastating wildfires effectively: “We can’t stop wildfires from happening, but we can restructure our response so that when we need to protect our citizens and their property, we can.”

An economic challenge

The response from federal and state land management agencies has been hindered by budgetary constraints.

However, Petersen argued that the issue extends beyond mere financial limitations.

“We believe the budgets do exist; we just need to redefine the way that they can be used,” he said.

He is advocating for a transformative approach in resource allocation, aiming to establish a: “Wildland firefighting apparatus that is on the ready, year-round to respond to fires effectively and aggressively anywhere in the nation.” He said that such a restructure would be both more effective and more economical in the long run.

The financial repercussions of wildfires are affecting taxpayers substantially.

The catastrophic fires, like the recent Lahaina fire, lead to immense recovery costs, estimated at over $3.2 billion, on top of the tragic loss of lives.

Petersen highlights the broader economic impact, noting: “These fire recovery costs all come back to the taxpayer through higher insurance premiums, impact fees or cash payments.”

The Wildland Fire Management Mitigation Commission

The establishment of the Wildland Fire Management and Mitigation Commission (WFMMC) under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is an important development.

This commission is charged with crafting actionable recommendations to tackle these disasters.

Petersen has recognised this as a critical opportunity for legislative action, suggesting that: “By allocating resources aligned with the WFMMC’s recommendations, local, state, and federal entities can be strategically empowered to mitigate wildfire threats.”

Implementing such strategies, including a robust national aerial firefighting fleet operational year-round, could dramatically reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires.

Petersen has called for a major overhaul of the national firefighting infrastructure: “It’s time to organize our national firefighting apparatus in a more efficient, streamlined manner,” emphasizing that this reorganization would support ground firefighters more effectively and prevent the extensive damage typically seen in these crises.

The QPL problem

Petersen recently raised serious concerns about the process of introducing new retardant products into the USFS Qualified Products List (QPL), claiming that: “The testing process, as it stands today, has a serious impact on the safety of the U.S.

aerial firefighting fleet.” The QPL dictates which chemical retardants are approved for use in combating wildfires from the air, directly affecting the efficiency and safety of aerial firefighting operations.

The introduction of a new Magnesium Chloride based retardant has led to unforeseen complications, particularly concerning the safety and longevity of firefighting aircraft.

The UAFA was notified by the U.S.

Forest Service (USFS) that the operational evaluation of this retardant was suspended due to its corrosive effects on airtankers.

“Significant corrosion” was discovered on certain airtankers after just one season’s use, leading to concerns about aircraft safety and availability for future firefighting efforts.

“The corrosion identified in these airtankers appears to be significant enough that one or both may be unavailable for the 2024 fire season and will need to be repaired at a considerable cost,” Petersen noted.

The current testing specifications, according to Petersen, are outdated and insufficient, having been developed decades ago based on the chemical properties of then-used retardants.

He critiqued the existing protocols, stating that they “were assumed to be adequate based on years of successful use of Long-Term Retardant (LTR) products in all aircraft types.” However, recent experiences have shown that products which passed these tests were later found to be unsafe in actual field conditions.

Petersen said: “This process must be reevaluated and rebuilt in the very near term to ensure aerial operations are safe and effective.”

Recommendations for retardant specifications

UAFA has laid out a clear path for the USFS to enhance the qualification and specification standards for fire retardants used in aerial firefighting.

They advocate for a revision of the retardant specifications to more closely mimic real-world aerial firefighting conditions.

This revision would ensure that fully qualified products are safe for aircraft, crews, firefighters, and the environment.

Additionally, UAFA has called for a temporary halt on the qualification of new retardant products until comprehensive reports and assessments, including those from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), are completed regarding the recent incidents of significant damage to airtankers.

Petersen urged the USFS to prioritize the reassessment of the Qualified Products List process: “By working together, we can prevent future incidents and safeguard the safety of our aircraft, firefighters, the public, and the environment,” he said.

Through these recommendations, the UAFA is aiming to instigate meaningful advancements in the way aerial firefighting resources are evaluated and implemented, ensuring they meet the demands of modern wildfire management and environmental stewardship.

This article was originally published in the May 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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