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California Fire: A Poor Use of Specialized Resources

Who doesn’t want night flying attack helicopters for wildfires?

I’m becoming more and more enamored with the TV news program 60 Minutes. This past week they had this episode: “‘It’s a war”: California turns to new, high-tech helicopters to battle wildfires.’”

The title is OK, but it belies the other story within the story, a nefarious internecine inability to cooperate to better serve the public.

First, let’s talk about the new tool that is now available in California for fighting wildfires. That is CH-47 Chinook Helicopters retrofitted to be fire attack aircraft. They can drop either water or fire retardant. Plus, they can fly at night due to the addition of night vision goggles for pilots. They are now routine for military pilots and aircraft.

Forty-five years ago in the 1970s there was a collision between two aircraft fighting a wildfire at night. Since then, aircraft do not fly and attack fires at night. The new technology changes all that, along with what in the military would be an airborne forward air controller (FAC) that coordinates multiple aircraft in attacking targets.

New tech, new capability — but no adaptation to the new resource. The 60 Minutes piece attributes it to two things: bureaucracy and the inability to rapidly change and adapt as a fire service. As for this last point, there is a quote I like: “The fire service, 200 years of tradition unhindered by progress.”

I’ve shared that what I do professionally is to try to get “people and organizations to work together.” This, then, is the crux of the problem. I’ll list a few possible issues.

  • Type 1 Teams, defined as “a Type 1 IMT is deployed as a team of 35-50 to manage incidents of national significance and other incidents requiring a large number of local, regional, state, national, and
    federal resources over multiple operational periods.” These guys are the cream of the crop, and they know it and act like it. They are “God’s gift” to the fire service — or so they think. Like every other elite force — Navy Seals, Delta Force, etc. — they have all the answers and they push “lesser people out of their way as they take over an incident.” The offer of night flying helicopters from another fire agency is poo pooed in their mind.
  • The above includes the attitude of “not invented here, so it can’t be good.” And, I’m not going to give them any recognition for what they can do. “We are in charge here!”
  • It has been 45 years since the rule against flying at night to fight fires was implemented. The ability to adapt and use technology within a discipline is sometimes difficult. Note the challenge of incorporating drones into many different types of operations.
  • The bureaucracy issue of “who are these people and are they certified to do what they do?” is a smoke screen for the issues of control mentioned above.

Lastly, a former Pierce County, Wash., Emergency Management director had a canned presentation he would give often. One of his bullet points in the presentation was that in a disaster, you can expect to see “a poor use of specialized resources.”
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.
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