Sunday November 23rd, 2014


They call it the Firehawk. – This is a CNN report
Los Angeles County Fire Department senior pilot Tom Short talks about this helicopter like it’s a super chopper.
“Having been in all of the aircraft that are out there fighting fires, the Firehawk is the best firefighting machine I’ve ever seen — simply because of what it does. It does everything: fire, rescue and air ambulance.”
Basically it’s a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter outfitted with a giant water tank. This thing is engineered to get hellishly close to the heat of a raging inferno. Its dual souped-up engines can lift 9,000 pounds — about the same weight as a large recreational travel trailer.


In preparation to dump water over flames, the Firehawk’s snorkel can suck 1,000 gallons of water into its storage tank in the span of one minute.
“We really work these machines very hard. During some fires, Short said, “I’ve made over 100 drops in one day.”
A firefighting super-chopper is especially valuable now, as California braces for what may be one of the worst wildfire seasons on record.


How worrisome is it? The state’s firefighting agency, Cal Fire, has responded to more than 2,500 wildfires in 2014 — a huge increase in the average number of fires at this point in the year, the agency says. In May, several fires in San Diego County forced thousands of residents from their homes and charred more than 31 square miles. The season usually doesn’t ramp up until summer or fall.


In the coming years, increased wildfire damage from climate change is expected nationwide because of “higher temperatures, widespread drought, earlier snowmelt, spring growth and expanded insect and disease infestations,” according to a report from Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonprofit research group. The U.S. Forest Service says changing climate will be the reason behind “at least a doubling of area burned by the mid-21st century.”
That could be a lot of acres. Although the number of wildfires in 2013 was down, the six most damaging fire seasons since 1960 have taken place since 2000, based on total acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The worst include 2006, 2007 and 2012, when flames claimed more than 9 million acres every year.
Short worries about California’s ongoing drought. “The water sources that we normally see that we can use to snorkel from are way low this year in our local area,” he said. “If it does happen to be an active fire season, our challenge is going to be trying to get water and be effective.”

Gone in 60 seconds: 1,000 gallons of water


When it’s time to drink, the Firehawk can chug it. Sucking all that water into a hovering aircraft is no small feat. Doing it in 60 seconds is nothing short of amazing.
Here’s how it works: the chopper hovers about six feet above a water source near the fire, such as a lake. The crew extends the Firehawk’s retractable, 12-foot-long collapsible Kevlar hose, called a “snorkel.” A crewman watches the snorkel through a gunner’s window behind the pilot’s seat and coordinates with Short to make sure all is working correctly. Short then hits a pump switch on a stick lever near his left hand called the “collective.” A level gauge on his instrument panel shows Short that water is indeed filling the tank. “When I get the water load that I want, I stop pumping, we retract the snorkel and we go on our way to the fire.”
Toting a full tank of water, the Firehawk handles completely different. “You can feel it,” he said. It still accelerates, but not as fast.

The county’s Firehawks often are among the first aircraft at the scene of a wildfire. “You size up what the fire’s doing in terms of winds, the terrain, what the fire’s burning and what structures are nearby,” Short said. Then the pilot must choose his target — where to drop the water.
Hitting flames with the water isn’t an exact science, Short admits. “We all have our good days and bad days,” chuckles the 13-year Firehawk veteran.
Much of it depends on the winds. If you have 20-30 mph winds or less, you’re probably going to hit it where you want it 99% of the time.”
Some of it depends on your altitude. Usually that’s from 50 to 100 feet off the ground. Too high — the wind might blow the water off target. Too low — and the chopper’s blades will blow the fire in the wrong direction, possibly threatening firefighters on the ground.

Remember, this is all happening as the helicopter is moving forward at speeds between 60 and 80 mph. A release switch to open the water tank doors is on another stick lever called “the cyclic,” near Short’s right hand. He adjusts the water drop with the wind so that when the water is released, it drifts with the wind into the fire.
“You try to play with the swirling winds down on the fire line. You play that Kentucky windage,” Short said, using a sharpshooter’s term for aiming a gun off target to adjust for the wind. “You’re like a marksman.”
Sometimes Short is able to check his work by looking out the window, other times he relies on reports from crew or other pilots nearby. “When you release the water weight, you immediately notice the performance goes up on the aircraft,” Short said. “It’s more agile, more maneuverable.”

If you miss the mark, Short said, “You go, ‘doggone it, I’ll be back with another load and try it again.'”
He describes the coordination between ground crews and aircraft as a “kind of a dance. We call it choreography and it goes back and forth.”


Friday May 16th, 2014

Understanding The Arsonist

What kind of person sets wildfires? What motivates a person to torch the landscape?

First, let’s eliminate the motives for the kinds of fires we’re not talking about: revenge – a guy’s girlfriend breaks up with him. He gets angry and sets her apartment on fire. That’s his way of paying her back. Fraud – someone torches his car because he can’t make the payments, or maybe he burns down an entire building to collect the insurance on a failing business. Hate Crime – someone sets fire to a church or Synagogue. In these cases, the reason for the fire is relatively easy to understand. The use of fire is the means to an end.

Now consider the more complex case where the fire itself is the objective–we’re talking about someone who deliberately sets out to start one or more fires during the worst weather conditions, when the fire is sure to spread and wreak havoc. Most likely, we’re talking about a repeat offender, a serial arsonist, what the investigators refer to as a “fire setter.” For these arsonists, the forecast of fire weather conditions, or even the report of a massive conflagration, will be an emotional trigger, bringing them out to start their own fires, often several at a time.

Who is the fire setter, and why does he do it? I use the word “he,” because arson is predominately a male activity. There aren’t many female arsonists. The majority of fire setters are white men between the age of 17 and 25. They are preoccupied with fire and get an emotional release from starting fires. There may be sexual overtones–some researchers claim fire setters are sexually repressed males who masturbate at the fires they set.

The reasons a person becomes a fire setter are complex. Many arsonists are social outcasts who are incapable of stable interpersonal relationships, especially with women. They come from troubled and fragile backgrounds. A dysfunctional or violent family environment is often a contributing factor and the typical fire setter had one or both parents missing from home during his childhood. If his family was intact, he lived in an unstable–often abusive and violent–emotional atmosphere and had a distant and hostile or aggressive relationship with his father. He may suffer from depression, borderline personality disorder, or even suicidal tendencies. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of arsonists indulge in alcohol and drug abuse.

Most investigators will tell you that the fire setter does not think ahead to the possible widespread destruction his arson fire will cause. He’s satisfying an immediate need–he’s starting fires for the excitement he cannot find elsewhere. Further, it gives him a sense of control over something in his life. For many, firesetting satisfies a desire to be recognized and establishes a sense of self-esteem. For others, setting fires is an act of aggression, which allows them to express anger and frustration. Many arsonists have repressed rage for authority figures. Some get the satisfaction of “getting away with a crime.”
Often the preoccupation with fire starts in childhood. A child who is “curious” about fire can grow into an antisocial and aggressive adolescent. Delinquent fire setters are often bored, and starting fires provides them with excitement and stimulation. For many, arson is the beginning of a wide range of activities leading to criminal conduct.

While teen-age arsonists often engage in fire activity with peer groups, by adulthood, most arsonists set fires alone. Psychologists distinguish between two types of adult arsonists: EMOTIONALLY DISORDERED, – these are individuals who are emotionally unbalanced and find setting a fire has a calming influence; THOUGHT DISORDERED – these are individuals afflicted with a range of illnesses from learning disabilities to full blown schizophrenic behavior.

There are not many old arsonists. For unexplained reasons, after the age of 25, most arsonists cease fire setting, but some move on to activities that are more ominous. While doing research for my serial arson mystery novel, I had the opportunity to talk to an arson profiler at the ATF. He told me that serial arsonists often have a history of torturing or killing animals as children, and that some serial killers are serial arsonists when they are younger.

One subset of arsonists bears special mention. “Firefighter-arsonists” sounds like an oxymoron, but they exist. Most are one-time fire setters who are bored at work and want to go out and “fight the fire devil.” Then there is John Orr, the infamous California fire captain who is now serving a life sentence for numerous arson fires in which four people died. Law enforcement officials say he was the most prolific arsonist of the 20th Century, possibly responsible for as many as 2,000 fires between 1984 – 1991.

Orr wanted to be a police officer, but was rejected based on his psychological profile. He eventually became a fire captain and arson investigator for the Glendale Fire Department in Southern California. During the ’80s and early ’90s, there was a series of unsolved arson fires around the Los Angeles area. Orr was often the first on scene and took control of the investigation.

While there are differences and similarities between many wildfire arsonists, perhaps the most consistent trend is the increase in acts of fire setting during the harshest weather conditions.