GFC's Air Operations team is gearing up for wildfire season
By: Stasia Kelly October 18, 2019
Photography courtesy of GFC
Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) representatives are recognized across the state by the emblem on their uniforms, signs and trucks. Trees. Air. Water. Fire. Well-managed forests have an impact on each of those entities and the GFC provides services that support them all - from wildfire protection and prevention to landowner assistance, seedling supplies and support for timber products and markets worldwide. And while we may be more accustomed to witnessing the agency's work at ground level, GFC operations are routinely servicing our state from the skies above, as well.
The GFC's Air Operations is a 35-person team (11 full-time, 24 part-time) made up of commercially licensed, instrument-rated pilots positioned across the state. Twenty aircraft stationed at seven hangar locations are at pilots' service as they patrol and protect Georgia's forest resources and stand ready to serve other state agencies. Aircraft can fly up to 160 mph and are positioned so that any location in Georgia can be reached within one hour.
Georgia's traditional wildfire season begins in late November and runs into spring. About 3,500 wildfires occur annually in Georgia, with weather playing a major role. The drought index and rainfall amounts impact wildfire susceptibility, and GFC Protection Chief Frank Sorrells said, "This upcoming fall fire season has gotten our attention. We're watching closely due to current drought indices and reduced rainfall amounts, especially in the northern half of the state."
Georgia experienced catastrophic wildfires in 2007, when $65 million in timber was lost along the Georgia-Florida border. In 2016, fire ravaged north Georgia and five adjoining states, and 2017's West Mims fire in south Georgia claimed 152,000 forested acres.
"Most fires are human-caused," said Sorrells, which is why the GFC places great emphasis on fire prevention through education. Early detection can make the difference between dealing with a small backyard fire started by escaped burning debris, or a fast-spreading fire capable of mass destruction.
The "Top Guns" of GFC's Air Operations in front of a Thrush 510G.
To stay ahead of fire activity, much of GFC Air Ops' mission is centered on daily wildfire patrol. According to GFC Air Operations Supervisor Clay Chatham, "When there's potential for fire, we're flying."
Chatham said patrol pilots cover all of Georgia's 159 counties. Like birds of prey, they're continuously scanning.
"Aircraft fly, looking for smoke. When spotted, they fly over it to determine if it's a wildfire or control burn. If there don't appear to be any fire breaks or containment, the fire is called in to our dispatch center," from which ground crews can be sent to investigate. With the touch of a cockpit button, a location signal is sent to dispatch, which uses GPS to communicate details to the nearest ground resource.
Pilots facilitate the early detection and suppression of wildfires, creating a tactical advantage to firefighters on the ground by providing real-time information. This can decrease the average size of fires by accelerating the response time of firefighters.
"We help them assess and evaluate equipment needs," said Chatham. "From the air, we can help them find the fire by tracking the location and giving them turn-by-turn directions." That helps get resources to fires as quickly as possible. Importantly, air surveillance, or the "overwatch mission," enhances safety on the ground.
Chatham said the pilots' high viewpoint provides potential life-saving intelligence, known in the wildland firefighting community as LCES: L - Lookouts - for all. C - Communications - with dispatchers and incident commanders. E - Escape routes - for firefighters and heavy equipment. S - Safety zones - for all resources.
In addition to Air Ops' fire watch duties, the group is tasked with assisting on forest management assignments. These include surveys for insect and disease damage, which can destroy more timberland than wildfire; post-tornado and natural disaster damage; and general aerial assessments of timber and forest health. Aircraft also fly over Georgia's watersheds and report any water-quality intrusions that may negatively impact nearby resources. Additionally, aircraft may be dispatched to assist other agencies with their missions, transport cargo or passengers, provide law enforcement support or fulfill the needs of aerial photographers.
Spreading Their Wings
The GFC's Air Operations unit was established in 1949. Chatham came aboard 13 years ago and became chief in 2012. In addition to being a licensed commercial pilot for fixed wings and helicopters, he is a licensed aircraft mechanic, flew for corporate entities and the Georgia Department of Transportation, and teaches students how to fly.
Chatham is especially proud of his team's capabilities and the fleet they utilize, which currently consists of one Bell 407 helicopter, 16 Cessna, one Super Decathlon and two Thrust 510G 182 fixed-wing aircraft. The Thrushes are Single-Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) that were added to the fleet last year through a welcomed initiative by the Georgia legislature. These aircraft were chosen after a careful assessment of their advantages for Georgia's needs. Chatham said they were selected for a number of reasons, including their high performance factors in aerial firefighting and because they are built in Albany, Georgia.
GFC's skilled pilots fly at low altitudes to disperse fire retardant on wildfires.
"We always want to support the local economy," Chatham said. "The maintenance cycle is low on this aircraft and durability is high. That makes for savings over time. Plus, Thrush Aircraft provides excellent training." That training combines ground school, simulator and in-aircraft instruction.
The two new planes are known to be built tough, with strong, corrosion-resistant metal components. They boast 800 horsepower and have capacity for 500 gallons of water or fire-retardant suppressant, which can be dumped in a flat two seconds, have a lengthened release or multiple partial releases.
"This gives us the capability to fight fire quickly," said Chatham. "The key to successful aerial firefighting is the initial attack phase. You have to response quickly to keep the fire from growing rapidly." Prior to the GFC's purchase of the Thrushes, only one attack vehicle, the helicopter that can carry 200 gallons at a time, was available. "These planes multiply our capabilities. Instead of observing and reporting, now we can observe, report and respond."
GFC's Bell Helicopter utilizes a special bucket to retrieve water and douse flames.
It's All in the Training...And the Experience
Chatham explained that GFC pilots mostly fly at low altitudes, around 1,000 feet. While one might suspect they use binoculars to pinpoint fires, he said they use the "look out the window method" instead. "Binoculars move too much and make you sick," he said. With required 20/20 vision, or vision corrected to that level, trained eyes produce excellent results.
A GFC pilot must have a commercial pilot certificate, an instrument rating and 500 hours' fly time to be hired. Every pilot is also a certified wildland firefighter, so they understand fire behavior, suppression tactics and the complicated nuances of a fire event. Each pilot begins his or her GFC career by flying wildfire patrol in a Cessna 182, the ideal foundation for developing aerial firefighters. Pilots learn to blend their training as professional aviators with their wildland firefighting knowledge and then grow both of those skills through heavy exposure to wildfires. It's important to note that while GFC pilots begin on the patrol mission, it doesn't at all lessen the importance of it. The service provided by these aircraft through detection and suppression support is invaluable to the unit's overall mission.
Four pilots have undergone further rigorous training to become qualified to fly the Thrush tankers. According to Chatham, the new planes "can be a handful when heavily loaded," so lots of experience is needed before getting behind the yoke.
Georgia's winter wildfire season is approaching. Will it be quiet or will Mother Nature lob a curve ball? In either case, forest landowners and citizens alike can feel secure in the protection provided by the GFC, on the ground and in the air.
Stasia Kelly is a media relations specialist with Georgia Forestry Commission. Stasia is focused on telling the story of forestry and the immense impact of the industry on Georgia's environment, economy and heritage.
Georgia Forestry Magazine is published by HL Strategy, an integrated marketing and communications firm focused on our nation's biggest challenges and opportunities. Learn more at hlstrategy.com