GEMA/HS Dispatch March 2018 Edition - Page 10

New aircraft change GFC’s approach to fighting fires By Uyen Le Schneider T he Georgia Forestry Commission is changing the way they fight wildfires. The commission added and started utilizing two state-of- the-art firefighting aircraft in December, which officials call a game changer when it comes to protecting the lives and land of Georgia citizens. The aircraft joining GFC’s fleet are two Thrush 510G Single Engine Air Tankers, or SEATS. The addition of these aircraft show the agency’s commitment to adopting the latest firefighting techniques. “This is a big benefit to us, and it’s a win for the state,” said Clay Chatham, GFC’s chief pilot and air operations manager. GFC is responsible for all wildfire suppression in the state of Georgia. The state averages over 8,000 wildfires a year with the average size being four to five acres per fire. Chatham and his team fly 365 days a year, patrolling the entire state for wildfires. The bulk of their air operations is used on patrol missions doing command and control, where the team surveys 10 the state for fire activity. If they detect one, they circle above it to help the firefighters on the ground. The primary purpose is to be their eyes in the sky and give them a safety zone, somebody to look out for them by telling them when the fire is getting more dangerous, according to Chatham. For those GFC rangers fighting fires on the ground, the pilots flying above are a huge help. “A couple years ago, we had a wildfire in the mountains. There was no way we could cover all that ground with the terrain,” said Leland Bass, Chief Ranger of GFC Oglethorpe Unit. “If it gets really busy, it’s good to have those planes overhead. The pilots can radio in, take control of that situation and help people get out.” Along with providing safety, the new aircraft provide more firefighting capabilities. The two new SEAT aircraft have the ability to drop up to 500 gallons of water or retardant in less than two seconds. The maker of the aircraft, Georgia-based Thrush Aircraft, said what’s most advanced and different with these airplanes Georgia Forestry Commission demonstrated the maneuverability of one of their two newly-acquired Thrush 510G aircraft during an unveiling ceremony in December 2017. Photo courtesy of Thrush Aircraft, Inc. are the fire gates -- the mechanism that controls the retardant or water released from the airplane. Before acquiring the new aircraft, the air operations fleet only had the use of helicopters to fight fires, which at their fullest capacity had the potential of dropping up to 200 gallons of water. The increased capability of the aircraft boosts GFC’s ability to fight and contain fires. “We bought two so that we can really attack aggressively whenever we have a fire, with one reloading while the other is dropping. We also can respond to more than one place at a time,” said Chatham. “If you look out across the country, this is not a new idea. If you look at the California fires for example, it’s very common practice, it’s the way it’s done.” Chatham says more and more agencies are utilizing duel aircraft to fight fires. Having two aircraft means GFC has one fully loaded to immediately attack a fire if they come upon one while patrolling. Not only will the airplanes change how effective their initial attack is, but they’re also doing so while using a homegrown product. “That’s what the cool story is. It’s a Georgia product with a Georgia agency protecting Georgia land,” said Eric Rojek, Thrush Aircraft, vice president of sales. Based in Albany since 1935, the company manufactures the entire aircraft in-house starting with the raw materials. The company also provided hands- on training to GFC pilots and mechanics. Now that the new aircraft are in the commission’s fleet, their hope is to position the new planes based on the fire danger. This allows GFC to have an aircraft at a fire within an hour if they’re on alert status, according to Chatham. GFC’s acquisition of these two specialized aircraft will greatly augment the commission’s firefighting capabilities. Equipped with this new firefighting power, Georgia’s natural resources and citizens will be better protected from wildfires. DISPATCH