Texas Forest Service Wages War on a Fierce Opponent
By Rick Davenport
Texas A&M Transportation Institute
With six of the ten largest fires on record occurring this year, the Texas fire season of 2011 has made the history books.
For the first time, the Texas Forest Service (TFS), which is the state agency responsible for coordinating the firefighting effort, had to utilize the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS). It consists of C-130 aircraft that each carry 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant, which can be released on an out-of-control wildfire in just 5 seconds.
In another first, a modified DC-10 — usually contracted with the state of California — was sent to west Texas and “played a tremendous role in preventing the destruction of several communities including the city of San Angelo.” The DC-10 can hold 12,000 gallons of retardant to create an impressive swath that’s three-quarters of a mile long and 300 feet wide.
In all, more than 9 million gallons of liquid was dumped by the numerous aircraft contracted by TFS. The various planes and helicopters assisted the 5,000 firefighters and support personnel on the ground that were called in from around the country.
Why was this year so bad?
It was the build up to a perfect storm: plenty of vegetation thanks to a wet summer in 2010, followed by a La Niña weather pattern (cooler water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, which creates a jet stream that steers rain away from the state), freezing conditions in January that killed the abundant plant life, and then the subsequent, historic March drought.
Couple all that with higher than normal springtime winds, and the Texas landscape turned into a tinderbox. Now, throw in mostly man-made sparks from burn piles, tossed cigarettes and even arson, and soon, especially after watching network television news coverage, it seemed the entire state was on fire.
“We received warnings that this season would be a bad one,” said Cynthia Foster, head of the (TFS) Planning and Preparedness Department, as she manned her work station in College Station, overseeing the Emergency Operations Center. “All indications were that we would be busy.”
In fact, April 2011 is the worst month on record for the amount of Texas real estate scorched in a 30-day period: 1,710,901 acres. In 1,600 individual fires for the month, more than 500 homes and other structures were destroyed.
But looking at the figures, another statistic jumps from the page under the “Homes Saved” column: 3,225. And that’s just for April. For the entire fire season, which typically runs from mid-November through May, the TFS fire-fighting effort is credited with saving more than 9,000 homes and other structures. The fire season usually tapers off in May because of rain, but not this year. The drought persisted and, in June some of the largest fires in recent history for central and east Texas occurred in Grimes, Polk and Trinity counties.
“We have an elaborate and effective air defense system in place to fight fire,” Foster explains. “When the local fire departments have a fire that’s beyond their capacity, either because they can’t get to it or because it’s one that is spreading too quickly, we are called in to assist.”
It’s a big job, and by February, it got big enough that TFS opened an incident command post in Merkel, 20 miles west of Abilene.
Air Operations Branch Director Johnny Stephens characterizes this season as “historic.” “Since I was brought in to oversee the air operations, it’s been non-stop,” he says. Stephens is a temporary TFS employee who resides in Washington State — when he’s not called to Texas to help. His job is to assign aircraft for the job at hand and then keep track of them.
Stephens has numerous types of airplanes at his disposal, all with a specific duty:
- Air attack aircraft — observation planes like a twin-engine Cessna or Aero Commander that carry a pilot and a highly-trained firefighter. They are one of the first resources deployed to a fire. They rapidly get to a location and assess the needs for additional aircraft and ground resources.
- Single-engine airtankers — crop duster-type aircraft that can drop about 800 gallons of water or retardant. They are very effective in lighter vegetation fires.
- Heavy airtankers — large twin-engine aircraft like a P-3 or P-2V that carry 2,200 gallons of retardant. They are very effective in grass and brush fires.
- Heli-tankers — large helicopters similar to a Chinook or a Blackhawk that carry 800 to 2,000 gallons of water. Mostly used in West Texas, the heli-tankers have a tank in the belly and a snorkel, which allows them to draft water from shallow water sources, like a stock tank. InEast Texas, it’s more common to use a bucket since water is more plentiful. When water sources are nearby, heli-tankers can drop huge volumes of water with near pinpoint accuracy.
- Smaller helicopters are also used occasionally around the state. InEast Texas, they can carry about 200 gallons of water and can be effective on the smaller fires. In the western half of the state, they’re used sporadically to map fire perimeters and transport personnel to remote, lightning-caused fires in theWest Texasmountains.
TFS doesn’t own the aircraft. Instead, they are contracted through the U. S. Forest Service and Dept. of the Interior and are usually flown in from out of state.
“Most people don’t realize that the planes are not designed to put fires out,” Foster says. “The pilot’s job is to help slow down a wildfire and try to control its direction. The firefighters on the ground actually extinguish the fire…and it sometimes can’t be done without the help from the air.”
Foster is also especially proud this year of one more accomplishment: 10,100 flying hours without an accident.
Editor’s Note: The weekend of September 3-4 saw another historic outbreak of fires across Texas, including one in Bastrop which at press time had burned 34,068 acres and destroyed 1,554 homes. Two civilians also lost their lives in this fire.
The DC-10 referenced early in this story made a return trip to Texas assisting firefighters by making repeated drops on the wildfire in Montgomery, Grimes and Waller counties near Houston. This fire devoured more than 15,000 acres.
According to the Texas Forest Service, the latest drought monitor shows 95 percent of the state in extreme drought, with 81 percent in exceptional drought (the highest category). Seasonal outlooks continue to indicate drying throughout the fall, so the drought is expected to worsen. For the week of September 5, the Texas Forest Service responded to 141 fires for 34,933 acres.