Monday, September 17, 2012

Pilots’ cooperation sought over fire zones: Agencies find interference at times in fighting wildland blazes

Posted: Sunday, September 16, 2012 9:20 pm


DULUTH — A number of state and federal agencies dealing with wildfires are asking civilian pilots for some consideration when battling blazes.

Wildfires have blackened millions of acres, destroyed hundreds of homes, and caused loss of life this year. In Minnesota, where there is ever increasing urban interface (areas where people are building in forests and near wetlands) firefighters are responding with a more aggressive assault on wildfires that includes the extensive use of aircraft, the U.S. Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, among other agencies, said in a statement Saturday.

Minnesota firefighters are asking for cooperation from all pilots to ensure a safe environment for aerial firefighting aircraft and crews.

“Most Minnesota wildfires are quick moving, wind-driven fires that pose the greatest threat to life, property and resources within the first few hours after they start. Current drought conditions in Minnesota are causing our forests and wetlands to be in high to extreme fire danger,” the statement said.

Firefighting agencies use helicopters and airplanes to assist ground crews. Several aircraft and crews may be on standby at strategic locations around the state every day to support fire suppression efforts with aerial delivery of water, retardant, firefighters, supplies and for fire detection.

One or more aircraft could be dispatched to any fire in the state within minutes after it starts. When aerial firefighters are allowed to operate in a safe environment over a wildfire they can be very effective.

This was proven in May near Ely. The “Highway One Fire” received top priority for aviation resources due to the threat to life and property. Firefighting agencies from across the state provided assistance and aircraft that included five air tankers, three helicopters and aerial supervision aircraft.

Pilots successfully completed more than 300 missions that day in the smoke filled airspace over the community, scooping water from local lakes to accurately deliver over 197,000 gallons of water and retardant to the fire; they were working around towers and power lines that ran through the fire perimeter.

Unfortunately, aerial firefighters were not provided with a safe environment a week later when they were asked to assist with a fire in western Minnesota near Rothsay.

While firefighting aircraft were maneuvering over that fire a single engine Cessna airplane flew within 250 feet of one of the air tankers. The tanker had to bank to the left to avoid the Cessna. According to reports from personnel on the ground, the small aircraft seemed to be getting into position for a better look at the tankers as they were working on the fire.

Minnesota DNR’s Bob Perleberg, air attack officer on both fires, confirmed that sometimes conflicts arise between private aircraft and firefighting aircraft when they find themselves in the same airspace.

He has directed tactical aircraft in his role as an airborne air traffic coordinator of firefighting aircraft in both the United States and Canada. He says that some private pilots seem to be naturally attracted to smoke and will change course or even take a quick flight just to see what’s burning. He and his colleagues have seen this type of behavior occur all over the nation which sometimes causes air operations to be suspended until the airspace can be cleared.

Large fires that burn for several days often have a temporary flight restriction placed over the fire in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration. This restriction creates and area of airspace closed to all aircraft that are not participating with fire suppression efforts. However, because of the quick response time on most Minnesota fires, there simply is no time to get a TFR in place and notify pilots.

“Voluntary cooperation by all pilots in the state will be much more effective,” Perleberg said. “We are asking for the professional courtesy of all pilots to stay 5 miles and 5,000 feet MSL from fires so we can do our job safely, efficiently, and effectively.”


No comments:

Post a Comment