Wildfire offers a reflection on integrating a new aviation tool into operations by the managers who put the tool to work.
This article was compiled from interviews and information submitted by firefighters assigned to the Minidoka Complex in south-central Idaho in 2012. Their names and positions on the fire were: Tony Duprey, Air Support, CL 215 Manager; Hugh Carson, Air Operations Branch Director (AOBD); John Kennedy, Operations Branch Director (OPBD) and Ben Oakleaf, Division Supervisor (DIVS).
The Minidoka Complex of fires were started in August 2012 in southeastern Idaho, by a series of lightning strikes. The Minidoka Complex consisted of four fires: three on the Sawtooth National Forest and one on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Twin Falls District. These four fires burned a total of 98,000 acres of forest and rangeland, and threatened nearby homes, farms, ranches and critical sage grouse habitat. The fire operations proved challenging due to the extreme fire behavior and rugged terrain. One overnight run spread the fire nearly 10 miles west toward farms and the main access road to a popular recreation area.
Two CL-215 air tankers, water scoopers, were deployed on this complex. The CL-215s were owned by Aero Flite Inc. of Kingman, Ariz., and contracted to the U.S. Department of Interior. The Canadair CL-215 was the first model in a series of firefighting “flying boat” amphibious aircraft built by Canadair and later Bombardier. The CL-215 is a twin-engine aircraft with a high wing configuration, designed to operate well at low speeds in gusty wind conditions. It’s also able to take off and land on unpaved airstrips.
Carson, Kennedy and Oakleak were assigned to Lunds Type 1 Incident Management Team (IMT).
Duprey was the Agency Manager with the CL-215s. He works for the Chumash Tribal Fire Department and was selected as manager and day-to-day contract inspector for the contract period with the CL-215s due, as Duprey explained, to his previous experience working with scoopers both as an Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) and as a manager and contract inspector.
How did the CL-215s end up on the Minidoka Complex?
Carson, AOBD: I was aware of two CL-215s in Montana that were not being fully utilized. After some delay, they were transferred to the Minidoka Complex. Air support was a critical need. Widespread fire activity made the availability of any type of aircraft questionable.
Were the CL-215s contracted aircraft? How many aircraft were there, and what are their advantages?
Duprey, CL-215 Manager: Two CL-215s were used, as well as Aero-Flite Inc.’s Scooper 262 and Scooper 264. The scoopers were attached to the Minidoka complex from 8/11/12 until 8/15/12. They were utilized on the incident on 8/11 and 8/12 — making a total of 65 drops or 91,000 gallons of water on the fire in 1.5 days.
Where were the Water Scoopers based at in Idaho?
Duprey, CL-215 Manager: For the Minidoka Complex, Scoopers 262 and 264 were based at Pocatello Regional Airport (KPIH). Pocatello was selected due mainly to three factors: the scoopers had operated there before; scoopable water, American Falls Reservoir, is within four miles of the airport enhancing initial attack capabilities; and selecting Pocatello ensured that the Twin Falls Tanker Base retardant operation supporting the Minidoka Complex would not be impacted by the scooper operation. Although the BLM tanker base at Pocatello provided logistical, briefing and dispatching support for the scoopers, the scoopers were parked on the general aviation ramp adjacent to the tanker base ramp.
Were the CL-215s used for initial attack?
Duprey, CL-215 Manager: On 8/13, one scooper was dispatched to a local initial attack fire from Pocatello and on the climb out, after scooping at American Falls Reservoir, spotted a grass fire approaching a home. After a call to the Air Tactical Group Supervisor for permission to drop on the emerging fire, the scooper dropped and, according to local fire authorities, “saved the structure.” This is an example of why locating scoopers near a water source is so important for initial attack capabilities.
Were there any issues with the use of local water sources by the CL-215s?
Carson, AOBD: One of the reasons that the CL 215s were so successful on the Minidoka is that the local fire and aviation management staff had done their homework by educating the line managers on the Sawtooth National Forest in the safe use of the aircraft. A pre-attack plan with key information about local lakes and reservoirs was extremely helpful. Another reason is close coordination with local authorities, in this case the mayor of Oakville, Idaho, and two water masters. After my experience at Minidoka, I became an advocate of the government not going through an approval process for potential bodies of water.
Where did the CL-215s scoop water from, and how many loads were delivered?
Duprey, CL-215 Manager: For the Minidoka Complex, the CL-215s scooped out of Lower Goose Valley Reservoir (40 loads), Lake Murtaugh (22 loads), Lake Walcot (one load) and American Falls Reservoir (two loads). For local initial attack, the CL-215s scooped out of American Falls Reservoir (four loads). The CL-215 pilots are Initial Attack Carded by the BLM and therefore did not require a lead plane. If a lead plane is on-scene working with the retardant aircraft, the scoopers will either be cycled to the lead by the ATGS or assigned a separate area to work on the fire under direct control of the ATGS.
Carson, AOBD: The CL-215 has a 1,400-gallon capacity.
How were the CL-215s used tactically on the fireline?
Kennedy, OPBD: This complex challenged our IMT in many ways. There was a significant drawdown of national resources, including ground and aviation assets. The fire behavior was extreme with historic ERC values, terrain-influenced winds, very mixed fuel models and values at risk. There was significant competition for aviation resources geographically, due to other large fires. It was a game changer once the CL-215s arrived. Our ground resources were having difficulty securing the S/W side of the fire. This was a critical side of the fire with a direct threat to ranches, residential structures, agricultural holdings and sage grouse habitat.
Once we located and approved scoop sites, we daisy-chained the scoopers with load and return times 10 to 15 minutes. Their target acquisition was spot-on and communication to our ground resources remarkable. I was impressed with the accuracy of their drops and the forward thinking of the pilots understanding the tactical objectives. We were able to secure the SW side fire with great success. I’ve worked with scoopers before but never with this complexity of terrain and fire behavior. From an Operations standpoint, I feel that the CL-215s are an asset to an incident if, logistically, there is a water source close by.
Oakleaf, DIVS: The Division I was responsible for [on the Minidoka Fire] 15 miles of line on the western edge of the fire. The CL-215s were an enormous asset on this fire. Air resources were hard to come by, and use of the scoopers finally gave us the opportunity to grab some line and start going direct in tough terrain. They were also a huge asset in the execution of a 12-mile burn. The CL-215s helped eliminate holding concerns and slowed the main fire spread so we could stay in front of it with the lighters.
The use of the CL-215s in terrain was no issue. They maneuvered and dropped any place we needed them, and there was no difference in their drop capability compared to a tanker. The turnaround time of the scoopers made them even more effective than retardant or heavy helicopters because they were able to deliver so much water in short periods of time. I think the CL-215s are a great aerial resource that should be used more often in the Intermountain West.
The CL-215 air tankers proved to be a valuable asset on the Minidoka Complex. The water scoopers proved to be versatile air tankers, with their ability to come in low and slow, and deliver water to the firefighters where it was needed. The quick turnaround times made them even more effective and cost-efficient.
Rich McCrea works as a wildland fire management consultant. Outfitted with a BS in Forestry, he started his career as a seasonal employee with the Forest Service, and then moved on to permanent positions with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a Fire Management Officer. In 2008 Rich retired from the federal government after a 32-year career in fire.