Saturday, August 15, 2015

Fighting wildland fires: Hotshots, helicopters, and whatever else it takes

Today’s National Weather Service forecast for Boise begins with the phrase patchy smoke. That indicates we are in the midst of wildfires. How much of the U.S. is burning right now? About 1,151.3 square miles, or more than the whole state of Rhode Island (1033 square miles). What’s the biggest active fire? It’s the 340 square mile Soda Fire, which is burning here in Idaho, about forty miles southwest of Boise. I took the image of it shown above on the afternoon of August 13th, looking west on Kuna-Mora road south of Kuna, Idaho. 

The table shown above is from data posted by the National Interagency Fire Center here in Boise. How much land has been burned so far this year? It’s 10,171 square miles, or more than the entire state of Maryland (9707 square miles) and almost as much as Vermont (9217 square miles) plus Rhode Island (10,250 square miles).

How are wildfires fought?


Often it calls for handcrews of twenty people on the ground, out in the back country with hand tools. The elite crews are called hotshots. See a National Geographic article, Who are the hotshots? A wildland firefighting primer. There are about 400 people fighting the Soda Fire. They also have dozers.


Big Ericksen Aircrane helicopters are often seen passing through Boise. Their 72-foot diameter, six bladed rotors make a distinctive low-pitched sound. They have big hoses that can be dunked into lakes to refill their water tanks in just about thirty seconds, as can be seen in this amateur video from Idaho. A longer professional video shows water bombing of fires in California.     


A wide variety of Firefighting Aircraft are being used, ranging from single-engined single-seat crop dusters (like Dusty in the animated Disney movie Planes: Fire and Rescue), up to DC-10 airliners, as shown here on the Soda Fire. One type we often see operating from Boise is four-engined C-130s equipped with the MAFFS system for dropping 2600 gallons of retardant. Of course, there also are smokejumpers, who are like firefighting paratroopers.


For the Soda Fire there have been crews arriving from far away, including northern Michigan, at the border with Canada, and Alaska. There’s a constant juggling act to get the available resources sent around to handle everything that’s going on.

According to the Idaho Statesman:

"About 460 personnel are fighting the fire with 11 helicopters, 34 engines, 12 water tenders and 9 bulldozers."

Read more here:"

UPDATE August 19, 2015

This morning the Soda Fire reportedly was 95% contained, and just 70 people were fighting it. It now covers an area of 443.3 square miles. Yesterday it was 90% contained and 702 people were fighting it. Two days ago when it was 70% contained there there were 811 people fighting it. As of then, the states with current fires were as shown below:


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