If pilots cannot see, they cannot fly. Visibility for all aerial operations is crucial to mission success and safety. Due to more than 200 wildland fires burning across Alaska, smoky conditions are becoming more and more of a hindrance for pilots.
“Visibility is dominating our decision making. It’s telling us what we can and cannot do.” said Dave Bloemkr, a Wildfire Operations Technician for the BLM Alaska Fire Service Tanana Zone.
The smoke from the fires, assisted by weather conditions in central and eastern Alaska have created an added obstacle for state and federal agencies’ suppression efforts. When smoky conditions worsen, aircraft are unable to fly daily missions to make water drops, transport firefighters and supply crews in the field.
With a landmass roughly one-fifth of the entire contiguous U.S., Alaska depends mostly on helicopters and airplanes to support wildland fire suppression and resource management. With more than 663,000 square miles of territory – an area more than twice the size of Texas – and only 17,681 miles of public roads, that can be a daunting task with clear skies. For instance, the 21 million-acre Lime Complex of 18 fires encompasses a vast, isolated geographic area between roadless communities accessible only by air and river.
Dense smoke advisories have been issued for many areas of the state on numerous days through this fire season with visibility less than one mile. Pilots require three miles of visibility for Visual Flight Rules (VFR). Aircraft can fly under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) if under 3 miles of visibility. Flying IFR can be more difficult and requires greater training and a pilot’s solid understanding of the aircraft’s instruments. And even that isn’t always enough.
“We deal with smoke every year, but this is an exceptional year for these conditions,” said Bob Merrow, Unit Aviation Manager for the BLM AFS. “We are being forced to make difficult decisions on the landscape in how we respond to fires.”
Fire officials must take all conditions; weather, aircraft and crew availability into account to make robust decisions rather than optimal solutions. These solutions are those that result in positive outcomes over a wide range of possibilities.
“We don’t always have consistent fixed aircraft to support a lot of individuals out on these fires, we have to look at how to be dynamic and put the right resources at the right place at the right time.” said Chris Demers, a duty officer in the BLM AFS Upper Yukon Zone.
When aircraft are grounded due to poor visibility, firefighters are transported to fires via roadways and waterways. As wildland fires break out, Alaska firefighters are finding a way to do their job.
Because of poor air quality grounded aircraft working the 141,004-acre Bean Complex of five fires in the area of Manley Hot Springs earlier this week, many personnel were shuttled by boat along the Tanana River. Long distances and strong river currents made this a two-day trip to move a crew and their supplies from the boat launch near Manley into place on the far west side of the complex.
“When we can’t fly safely, we have to find alternatives to support firefighters,” said Merrow.