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One month after a wildland firefighter was evacuated from a fire line via a helicopters Bambi Bucket, the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC) has concluded that the action reflected reasonable decision-making under pressure although it doesnt recommend that the practice become commonplace.
Representing the United States Forest Service and partner agencies, the LLC recently issued a Facilitated Learning Analysis report that provides new details on the extraction, which occurred on Sept. 28 on the Pole Creek Fire near Sisters, Ore. While the report highlights a number of lessons learned and areas for improvement, it stops short of assigning blame for the incident. Instead, it commends the pilot and firefighter involved for quick thinking, decisive actions and a collaborative effort that resulted in a positive outcome.
The report describes how, on the day of the incident, the firefighter (identified as a task force leader, or TFLD) was scouting the west side of the fire alone and on foot. Finding an area of active flare-ups, the TFLD requested a helicopter for water drops. A Type 2 helicopter said to be carrying a 230-gallon Bambi Bucket arrived around 11:30 a.m., and the TFLD began coordinating drops with the pilot via radio.
At approximately 12:45 p.m., both the pilot and TFLD noticed a change in wind speed and an increase in fire activity, although their perceptions of the degree and importance of the weather change differed, based on their vantage points and experiences, according to the report. Although the TFLD felt confident in his position and escape route, the pilot believed that fire activity had increased drastically and was threatening the TFLD.
With the helicopter now running low on fuel, the pilot found a small opening of shorter trees where he was able to safely lower his bucket to the ground. He encouraged the TFLD to climb inside, and the TFLD agreed, saying, You can see better than I, and I am going to trust your judgment. The pilot then flew the TFLD in the bucket to an open meadow about a half-mile away, where the TFLD got out while the helicopter returned to base for fuel.
As part of its investigation, the Facilitated Learning Analysis team later visited the site of the extraction, finding it green and unburned. However, the team also noted that something unknown (possibly wind, terrain or fuel bed profile) had stopped the fire front movement toward the extraction site; had that not occurred, the site might have been impacted by fire. Consequently, the team concluded that both stories from the pilot (the concern that fire behavior would impact the TFLD) and the TFLD (his escape route and safety zone [were] available and appropriate) were plausible. Their joint decision making with the information they had at that time led them to a reasonable, if unusual, action. The team described the method of extraction as unorthodox and creative, though not a use of equipment that we recommend becomes commonplace.
The report observes that fire behavior looks different from the air versus the ground, and that fire behavior and risk also look different based on the different training and experiences that ground and air resources bring to the table. It recommends that wildland firefighters build more opportunities for mutual learning between ground and air resources. Finding opportunities for pilots to train and debrief with ground resources will assist both air and ground resources in the execution, and understanding, of their respective missions, it states.