Dropping fire suppressants from fixed and rotary wing aircraft is an extremely effective way to fight wildfires. Living in the southern California mountains we annually witnessed how air attack kept little fires from becoming big, and big fires from going into populated areas. In the 1993 Malibu fire, it was five or six heavy lift helicopters with big buckets that saved the community of Topanga with 8,000 housing units. The demonstrated airmanship was awesome to behold as an orbit was established with the heavy lifters dropping sea water on the ridge where we lived that separated Topanga Canyon from Tuna Canyon as the four-day-old fire returned to consume the last few houses on the Tuna Cyn side as it tried to breach the ridge. The heavy lifters soaked our ridge, climbing up Los Flores Cyn, dropping their loads (our cars got sea water rinses) with pinpoint accuracy, and then diving down through the narrow Tuna Cyn gorge with rock walls within a hundred feet of their rotors to the ocean to fill up and repeat the cycle. With their skill and courage, those airmen saved an entire town (our ridge-top house included) in the Santa Monica Mtns.
Witnessing year after year how effective were the aircraft, many of us wondered why the operations had to shut down after sunset, and sometimes even when the smoke got too thick. The answer given was always flight crew safety, it was not possible to fly when you couldn’t see the terrain. But by the 1990s a lot of technology had already been developed that might mitigate that concern, and today that definitely appears to be the case.
So, I raised the question about 24/7 flight ops again to my professional aviator friends. And to make sure that I don’t get anyone’s undies in a knot, I am not impugning the skill and courage of the flight crews, nor do I want them to take any more risks than they are already taking. (For the techies, I don’t want them to undertake missions in which their probability of accident is any greater than it is today.) But I am questioning the policies under which our wildfire air attack operations are designed, prepared, and executed. And I am perfectly willing to be educated and accept any reasonable answer.
A pertinent question gentlemen: Why do the air attack missions stop when the sun goes down? I have asked this question for some years, and the answer always comes back as safety of the air crews, that in the dark they tend to fly into mountains. Now I persist in this as someone not altogether unfamiliar with low altitude night missions carried out in the presence of terrible WX conditions (in enemy territory).
Back in the 1975-79 period I was designing in-cockpit computer driven displays that would enable low altitude attack aircraft to penetrate complex radar/missile defense layers through extremely difficult terrain (North Vietnam) and deliver (dumb bomb) munitions on pinpoint targets like bridges, radar sites, power plants, etc. I worked hand-in-glove with the A-6 Intruder medium attack pilots at Whidbey Island NAS. These very impressive guys flew lower than any wildfire air attack pilots I’ve seen living 25+ years in soCal mountains where my neighborhood burned annually - and the light attacks flew even lower during daylight often landing with “weeds in the undercarriage”. The Navy attack pilots were an awesome bunch of aviators, and the A-6 crews were quite proud of flying such missions in zero/zero conditions without ever looking outside the cockpit. But that was then (40+ years ago) and this is now.
Today we have GPS that can keep an aircraft, flying Mach 1 or a slower highly maneuvering aircraft, within a 10-foot CEP. And we have 3D terrain maps accurate to less than one foot in all directions. And we have aircraft control algorithms that can nail the A/C’s 3D executed trajectory within its unique performance envelope. And we can display the whole thing to ground control and the flight crew, including the exact 3D approach, drop trajectory, and release point(s) that the event commander requests. And all of this without having to look outside the cockpit.
The guys at Whidbey flew these missions on a regular basis both in Vietnam and in the very cloudy and stormy Northwest. So again, why do our air attack guys have to cease ops when the sun sets, and the winds die down (usually), and the fires continue to burn? Given the effectiveness of air attack fire suppression and the horrendous annual cost of these fires, this should justify incorporating the kind of training and avionics required to successfully fly such missions 24/7.
I’m fairly certain that I’m not the only one who appreciates the capabilities of all-weather, day/night attack aircraft, and what they did then and can do today. So, it must mean that I’m missing something very crucial in this scenario, and hence am prepared to sit humbly at the knee(s) of my betters for enlightenment.
As the northern California wildfires continue to rage with the awful stats in lives and properties lost already on the books, is it not time to revisit the question of 24/7 air ops? And if there are material reasons why the policy should remain unchanged, then explain it to the public. Else, let’s spend the money and expand the availability of this crucial tool for fighting the holocausts which occur annually with such regularity.
[update] Given the expanding comment stream hereunder expanding to wildfire experiences, I want to reprise the major wildfire experience we had in the Santa Monica Mountains back in 1993 that I reference above. It was documented in a three part series on these pages way back in 2007, starting here.
[11oct17 update] As more information comes in on the Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino county fires, it appears to me that a 24/7 air attack capability may well have saved the hundreds of houses in the built up areas of towns like Santa Rosa. Calfire reports that the flame front advanced on the town covering 16 miles in 6 hours, or at about 2.67mph which is a brisk walking speed. The fire reached the town around 2am. The fire fighting authorities saw it coming over a broad front in the middle of the night, but had no resources which could have stopped or slowed the wind-driven fire. The only possible way to have stopped it would have been to create a broad band of non-flammable terrain between the fire front and the developed neighborhoods. Laying down such fuel-denying bands is the job of air attack. The alternative to that last Sunday night was simply to watch the flames advance while rushing in sparse and ineffective ground crews, and try to warn the residents to evacuate (which itself was not uniformly successful given the large number of people who received no warning at all).
Life, limb and emotional traumas aside, the damage that wildfires cause to properties in built-up areas ranges easily into the billions of dollars, and to continue fighting fires over an extended period costs additional hundreds of millions. The obvious question that begs to be answered is how effectively could such losses be prevented and/or minimized if we maintained 24/7 air attack strike units at the ready during the annual fire seasons in ‘high value target areas’. The annual downside costs occur reliably in western states, especially California. I am not aware of any reports that detail or even acknowledge that a 24/7 air attack feasibility study has been done. It seems to me that the political price to be paid for distributing the cost of losses over thousands of individuals and tens of jurisdictions is still not high enough to even bring the subject up for serious discussion.