The DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT)

Aerial firefighting involves the use of aircraft–both fixed-wing and rotary-wing–to combat wildfires. Among the fixed-wing type are air tankers and water bombers equipped with tanks that can be filled with fire retardant or water. Some air tankers (like the DC-10 VLAT pictured below) are loaded on the ground at an air tanker base, while other aircraft (such as the Bombardier 145 “Superscooper”) can be loaded by skimming water from lakes, reservoirs, or large rivers.

The DC-10 VLAT is a converted McDonnell Douglas DC-10 commercial airliner. It’s a three-engine, wide-body aircraft that was first introduced in 1971 and was in service with American Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Pan Am. Production of the DC-10 ended in 1989 and the aircraft flew its last commercial flight in February 2014.

In 2002, the company 10 Tanker Air Carrier began proof-of-concept testing of the DC-10 VLAT in an aerial firefighting role. In 2006, the aircraft was issued a Supplemental Type airworthiness certificate by the FAA which allowed it to be modified for aerial firefighting. Shortly thereafter, the DC-10 VLAT was certified as an air tanker by the United States Forest Service and was first used in California during the 2006 wildfire season on a “call-when-needed” basis at the price of $26,500 per flight hour.

The DC-10 VLAT is not used on all fires as it is operationally limited due to its time to reload retardant and refuel at air tanker bases. However, one retardant drop from the DC-10 covers a swath roughly 300 feet wide and one mile in length, four times the coverage of any other tanker currently in use.

 Aircraft Specifications:

  • Cruising speed:  520 knots
  • Feet-per-minute climb rate:  2,000
  • Fire suppressant tank capacity:  11,600 gallons

**DC-10 VLAT during a demonstration for LA County Fire officials in 2006**

What Happens To Plants After A Wildfire?

News regarding large wildfires typically covers the location of the fire, the size of the fire, and the fire’s impact on people and property. With the possibility of hundreds of homes destroyed, thousands of people displaced, and millions in damaged property, it’s no wonder much of the media’s attention of large wildfire events is focused on what happens DURING a fire.  But what happens after a wildfire is out?  Or specifically, what happens to plants and vegetation after a wildfire burn? Does the ground remained scorched, forever void of life like some scene out of Mad Max?

The truth is wildfire has helped to shape California’s vegetative landscape for thousands of years. It affects the kinds of plants growing in a particular area, their abundance, size, health, and lifespan. The fire kills some plants, rejuvenates others, and some plants may even need fire in order to thrive.

Some areas in Southern California have plants with leaves naturally coated in flammable oils that encourage a fire to spread. The heat from the fire causes their fire-activated seeds to germinate and the young plants can then take advantage of the fact that the other surrounding plant life was destroyed in the fire. The cones of the Lodgepole Pine are sealed with a resin that is melted away by fire, which then causes the seeds to be released. Other plants have smoke-activated seeds which function in a similar manner. Some trees, like the giant sequoia tree, rely on wildfires to make gaps in the vegetation canopy so that sunlight can reach the forest floor allowing their seedlings to grow.  

This map (courtesy of the Department of Agriculture, Forest Service) shows the effects of wildfires on plant life in various regions of the US. The color coding shows the different ecosystem types and the frequency of fire (and types of fire) that allow those plants to thrive.

Some key definitions (courtesy of the Department of Agriculture):

Understory Fire

A fire in forests or woodlands that is not lethal to the dominant, overstory vegetation and thus does not change stand structure substantially. Most (75%) of the dominant vegetation survives.

Mixed Severity Fire

A fire that causes partial (26-75%) replacement of the upper canopy layer.

Stand Replacement Fire

A fire that kills all or most of the living upper canopy layer and initiates succession or regrowth.

Recent Surge in Texas Fire Activity Despite Historic Rainfall in May

Though Texas saw record rainfall in the month of May, fire season is still in full swing. South Central Texas in particular has seen a significant surge in wildland fires. In the last seven days, there have been 268 fires reported with 12,911 acres burned. The largest of these fires was the Hidden Pines Fire in Bastrop County which consumed 4,582 acres and destroyed 68 homes.

Why has Texas seen an increase in fire activity in recent weeks? A wet spring brought significant grass growth to much of the region. Since June, temperatures have been normal to slightly above normal, while relative humidity levels have been below normal. This has allowed new grass growth to become very dry and prone to ignition. Dry grass can be ignited by the smallest of heat sources such as vehicle exhaust pipes, emergency flares, and cigarettes. Once grass has started to burn, it can rapidly spread to surrounding vegetation and structures. These fast moving grass fires become difficult for firefighters to contain due to their rate of spread and unpredictability. Fortunately, weather forecasts are predicting cool and rainy conditions for the next several days, allowing firefighters a much needed break.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2015/06/01/record-breaking-may-rainfall-in-texas-and-oklahoma-by-the-numbers/

NIFC’s Wildland Fire Outlook

At the start of each month, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) produces a 3 month significant wildland fire potential and weather outlook for the entire country. The Wildland Fire Potential map shows a national picture of the expected trend for fire activity and growth based on previous fire history and current weather predictions. This information is used by Fire Managers to determine staffing levels, anticipate large fire growth, and prepare for the need for pre-positioning out of area resources.

month1_outlook.pngBased on the current forecasts from NIFC and the drought conditions, October will likely bring above normal potential for wildland fires in California. This time of year also brings the potential for Santa Ana wind events over Southern California. Much of the nation will see normal to below normal fire potential, due in part to the significant rains that have impacted much of the country in the last week.

To see the NIFC Significant Fire Potential predictions for the months of November and December, click the link below.

http://www.predictiveservices.nifc.gov/outlooks/monthly_seasonal_outlook.pdf

Sundowner Winds and Their Impact on Fire Behavior

A sundowner wind is an offshore northerly Foehn wind that occurs near Santa Barbara, California. The winds surface when a ridge of high pressure is directly north of the area, and they blow with greatest force when the pressure gradient is perpendicular to the axis of the Santa Ynez Mountains which rise directly behind Santa Barbara. These winds often precede Santa Ana events by a day or two, as it is normal for high-pressure areas to migrate east, causing the pressure gradients to shift to the northeast.

 

Sundowner winds are dried and heated by the warm inland valleys and deserts. As narrow canyons and valleys compress the winds, they become stronger and overpower the diurnal winds. Firefighting efforts during a sundowner wind event can become extremely difficult. The Jesusita fire in May 2009 burned 8,733 acres and destroyed 80 homes while damaging 15 more. Most of the destruction occurred while sundowner winds pushed the main fire through populated areas. The Painted Cave Fire during June 1990 rapidly grew to 5,000 acres, destroying 427 buildings and killing 1 civilian.

 

RedZone’s Experienced Wildfire Liaisons Connect IMTs to Private Response Teams

 

When RedZone clients dispatch their private resources to respond to a wildfire, RedZone provides an on-scene Liaison to facilitate access and coordinate efforts with the local Incident Command personnel as required by federal, state, and local guidelines.

RedZone’s Liaison staff has over 70 combined years of experience responding to major wildfires as well as other types of natural disasters, and enjoy an impeccable reputation among Incident Command personnel throughout the country.  Because of this reputation, Liaisons are able to gain access to the Incident Command Post of a given fire and obtain permission for the private resources to maneuver within the emergency deployment area and perform mitigation tactics on specific homes.

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Throughout the duration of the incident, Liaisons will communicate the teams’ locations and coordinate movements within the area, attend operational briefings and planning meetings as necessary, and provide the Incident Management Team (IMT) with a direct communications link to the private resources in the field.  Liaisons will also deliver regular status updates to RedZone’s intelligence staff to be disseminated to clients via the RZAlert product.

In the offseason, RedZone Liaisons make presentations for regional Incident Management Team meetings and perform outreach to fire professionals on behalf of RedZone’s insurance carrier clientele.  They also conduct continuing education classes for insurance professionals.

The strong relationships Liaisons foster with Incident Command Teams and the increased safety Liaisons promote among private crews on the fireline make them an integral and indispensable component of RedZone’s wildfire services.