As summer approaches in North America it means the inevitable coming of wildfires.  Some numbers provide a useful guide to what these fires mean.  The US National Interagency Fire Center wildfire firefighting statistics and costs for 2016 (2015 for comparison) show:-

  • 67,595 wildfires (68,151); 5,503,538 acres burned (10,125,149 acres)
  • US Forest Service suppression costs – $1.6 billion ($1.7 billion in 2015)
  • Dept of Interior Agencies suppression costs (includes Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife service) – $371.7 million ($417.5 million)
  • Total suppression costs $1.98 billion ($2.1 billion)

A big fire last year in at Fort McMurray caused tremendous damage.  Some 1,800 homes and another 600 condo and apartment units plus numerous other structures were damaged or destroyed.  There was a forced evacuation of more than 80,000 people.

The fire began in a remote forested area south of the city on May 1 and by the early evening of May 3 the flames were inside the city putting all of the city under mandatory evacuation. Nobody died as a direct result of the fire. The fire was only declared under control in early July.  The direct and indirect costs of almost C$9bn include the expense of replacing buildings and infrastructure as well as lost income, profits and royalties in the oilsands and forestry industries.

A British Aerospace BAe-146 belonging to Neptune Aviation makes a phoschek drop Saturday June 18, 2016 on the Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Enter a new firefighting tanker, the Avro RJ.  2016 had a busy wildfire season in North America, the 14 in-service BAE Systems BAe 146-200s and Avro RJ85s of Neptune Aviation and Conair/Aero-Flite flew a combined total of over 5,800 tanker missions, dropping in excess of 12.5m gallons of retardant to help control some of the 67,595 recorded wildfires in the USA and well over 5,000 in Canada.

A further eight BAe 146/Avro RJs are under conversion for this demanding role, with four scheduled to enter service during 2017.  For the upcoming 2017 fire season, 58% (11 out of 19) of the Large Airtankers (3,000 gallon capacity) contracted under United States Forest Service (USFS) Exclusive Use Contracts are BAe 146-200/Avro RJ85s, underlining the vital role now played by the aircraft.

This new role provides BAe Systems with a useful second life for its aircraft.  Success in the demanding roles in North America may well be replicated elsewhere.  As these RJs leave airline service there’s a long future in firefighting to come.

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