The role of helicopters in forest fires

Posted in Blog by STEPHAN/H on

Helicopters have become an essential tool in firefighting and are used not only to fight the flames and reduce the potential spread of a fire, but also to transport equipment as well as workforce to the scene.

The helicopters go to the front alongside firefighters and tankers to fight the fire before it ravages everything in its path.

When a forest fire is spotted, there are several steps to follow in order to coordinate the operations. Tankers are usually the first responders, attacking the blaze and preventing the fire from advancing by using fire retardant. Helicopters also arrive to transport teams and their equipment to the field (water pumps, hoses, tools, etc.). The ground crews then take care of securing the perimeter around the fire and limiting its progress.

After transporting personnel and equipment, aerial work begins for helicopters. They are typically used at the edge of the fire to prevent expansion. If any smaller fires exist on the periphery, helicopters can also be used to extinguish them.

Equipment used by helicopter to fight forest fires

Helicopters accomplish their aerial work using equipment designed specifically for firefighting. There are several water bombing techniques. For example, there are two kinds of buckets that attach under the helicopter to dump the water on the fire: the Bambi Buckets or the Fast (Fire attack storm tank) Buckets. Depending on the size and power of the helicopter used, hundreds or even thousands of liters of water can be dropped on each pass. The pilot can fill the bucket either in a lake, a river, or even a pool, when the approach is safe.

There is also another device called Fire Attack Kit. The kit is a rigid, external tank, fixed under the helicopter. It is equipped with a pumping hose, which allows it to fetch water from small reservoirs, such as a shallow stream. As in the case of Bambi and Fast Buckets, the capacities vary according to the power of the helicopter.

The types of helicopters used to fight fires

Several types of helicopters can be used to fight a forest fire. For example, the Astar 350, B2, B3, B3E, B4 and EC120 models are used extensively in Quebec by Capitale Hélicoptère, during firefighting operations in collaboration with SOPFEU. Helicopter types may vary from country to country. The Bells 205, 212, 214 and 412 are widely used in Italy and Greece, for example.

Helicopter pilots

It is important to mention that before being able to take part in a firefighting helicopter operation, a pilot must undergo training and obtain certification. In Quebec, for example, a pilot must not only have accumulated more than 500 flight hours, including 100 hours on the type of helicopter used, but must also pass a SOPFEU exam. In addition, pilots will generally practice doing some maneuvers in the spring, so they can be ready for the summer season.

Difficult conditions

Although they are in the air and not on the ground, directly in the line of fire, pilots face many constraints and difficulties. Smoke can blur visibility and the pilot must be very vigilant, especially since they have to share the airspace with other aircraft. During such an operation when there are several aircraft in a territory, air traffic control is managed locally by a fire control specialist who directs the fire suppression operations on board an airplane called aeropointeur. Depending on the size and extent of the fire, the work of airplanes and helicopters can range from a few hours to several days or even weeks.

When watering is complete, helicopter work continues with the recovery of the material (directly in the helicopter or using a sling) and to retrieve personnel from the burned area. If necessary, helicopters equipped with stretchers, such as those used by Quebec company Airmedic, whose crew members wear ROTOR Medic STEPHAN/H clothing, can also be used for medical evacuation.


helicopter fast bucket
Helicopter equipped with a Fast bucket