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.”