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Thu, Aug 18, 2011

Interior Department, Forest Service Issue Warning For Airborne Firefighters

Cautioned To Use Care When Selecting Sites For Water Loading

As fire season progresses in the West, many rivers and streams are flowing at higher than normal rate for this time of year, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Servic.. Those that are flowing near normal appear to have a significant amount of debris from earlier flooding. With the high water flow and debris, the agencies say thorough risk assessments need to be conducted on dip sites prior to commencing operations.

Dept. of the Interior Photo

A Bell 212HP performing bucket operations with a 150 foot longline (SAFECOM 11-508) caught a log in the bucket cables. The assistant helicopter manager and pilot had scouted the area for dip sites and determined the main river was flowing too fast. Smaller streams with pools and a lake were selected as optional dip sites.

In the after action review the unit noted that the pools selected were twice as large as normal with faster running water in and out of the pool. This caused some concerns; fast water caused the bucket to roll back through itself tangling the cables, and there were known to be logs and other hazards under the water surface that were not easily visible to the pilot. The lake water was so high that trees and shrubs along the shoreline were well below the high-water line and roots or snags were not easily visible.

Dept. of the Interior Photo 

Recommendations from the two agencies include:

  • Use local knowledge for dip site selection.
  • Utilize dip site managers whenever possible and ensure they have radio contact.
  • Helicopter managers need to discuss with the pilots their comfort level with dip sites and if improvements are needed.
  • Conduct thorough reconnaissance; include a broader look at the water area so all potential obstacles are addressed and ensure safety circle compliance if descending below canopy.
  • Define parameters for dip site acceptability based on your assessment of the risks from winds, debris, swift water, etc. Ensure all personnel using the dip site understand and operate within those parameters.
  • Look for pools near the sides of the rivers or streams where flow rate is lower.
  • Carefully evaluate pools that are developed upstream from debris build-up.
  • In extremely high water conditions ensure that the dipsite is free of debris and the and the bucket is kept away from the water inlet and the outlet where debris may have settled.
  • Control the bucket depth throughout the dip cycle, do not allow the bucket to sink below the waterline to the point that obstacle avoidance cannot be assured.
  • Consider alternatives to the risk of fast water (i.e. setting up folding tanks, pumpkins, etc.)


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