Helitorch: An Innovative Fire Suppression Tool
The potential for wildfires is being reduced by a unique tool used for clearing brush and chaparral.
Since ancient times, fire from the sky (lightning) has been the culprit, igniting brushland and forests.
“Today we are seeing a different kind of fire from the sky,” says Len Newell, head of chaparral (dense thickets of dwarf evergreen oaks) management for the California Department of Forestry in Sacramento. “We call it helitorch because it drops fire igniters from a helicopter, and it is no longer branded a culprit but rather a tool for controlled burning to clear out grossly overgrown chaparral that is subject to uncontrolled wildfire. Such out-of-control blazes do irreparable damage to watersheds, frequently spreading to timberlands and leaving mountains and hillsides bare and vulnerable to floods and mud slides when the winter rains come to California.”
In this state alone, wildfires in 1980 cost over $165 million in property and natural resource losses and fire suppression costs. Obviously the chaparral had to be managed better.
“Helitorch utilizes a slurried mix of gasoline and gel,” explains Newell. “This substance is discharged from a helicopter hovering over an area designated for carefully prescribed burning, with every precaution taken to keep the controlled fire from escaping the specific plot designated for the cleansing burn.”
In addition to clearing out dense, flammable undergrowth and lessening the terror of potential wildfire, prescribed burning clears overgrown land for forage vegetation, converting the unusable land into livestock grazing ranges. Further, controlled burning opens up the area to larger wildlife (like deer) and produces increased stream flow, with the undergrowth no longer absorbing virtually all available moisture.
“Controlled burning is not new,” says Newell, “but in California we are seeing two new features: helitorch, which is cheaper and more effective than hand ignition, and state legislation, allowing the California Department of Forestry to use tidelands oil revenue to fund prescribed burning on both state lands and private lands when requested by owners.”
With the passage of Senate Bill 1704 on July 16,1980, the state can pay up to 90% of the burning cost, plus provide liability insurance in the event of a breakout. With this inducement, many California landowners (chiefly cattlemen) are applying to the Department of Forestry for a prescribed burn on their overgrown lands. An environmental checklist is used to evaluate the effects of a proposed burning plan on the environment and to ensure positive effects overall.
“Combined with sound management plans, the effective use of helicopters has been demonstrated in many pilot projects throughout the state,” says Newell. “Use of the helitorch to ignite vegetation controlling fires has been found to be the least expensive method in terms of dollars and environmental impact. Helitorch costs $5 to $50 an acre. Mechanical means of clearing brush (crushing, chopping, or uprooting plants) includes the use of bulldozers, brush rakes, etc. The per acre cost of such a procedure runs from $50 to $250. Manual clearing by the use of axes, brush hooks, chain saws, and hoes is slow, laborious work, and is the most expensive chaparral management tool, costing $800 to $3,000 per acre. However, this may be the logical choice in areas unsuitable for prescribed burning or other treatments.”
Chemicals such as phenoxy herbicides can be applied to control broadleaf plants and brush without affecting grasses or coniferous trees. The cost of chemical treatment ranges from $30 to $120 an acre, but because of harmful effects on fish and wildlife and possible public health impacts, it is the policy of the California Department of Forestry to avoid and discourage the use of such chemical controls.
Aerial ignition has become a more reliable and economical way of setting prescribed burns due to a new fuel— gasoline thickened with a gelling agent. This fuel does not burn out nor break up before reaching the ground. The gelled gasoline holds together and keeps burning as it falls through the air to the ground.
The gelled gasoline is pumped out in golf ball sized lumps from a helitorch suspended from a helicopter cargo hook. The helitorch consists of a 55gallon tank, igniter and electrical pump. Along with 55 gallons of gasoline, the helitorch carries about 10 pounds of a gelling agent called alumagel, whose flow and ignition the pilot controls. The helitorch is within the pilot’s sight at all times and can be jettisoned if necessary.
The gel enables pilots to drop fire with greater accuracy from higher altitudes and faster speeds, increasing safety and efficiency.
Newell points out that a major advantage of the helitorch is that it eliminates the danger of sending crews into the heavy brush and steep slopes to set fires by hand. Ground crews have incurred many serious injuries from slips and falls during firing operations.
Once the gasoline has jelled, it is less volatile than a gasoline-diesel fuel and can be dropped at speeds up to 55 mph from heights of 500 feet. With a full tank, the helitorch can operate continuously for five minutes.
“Fast, timely ignition is a major advantage of aerial ignition. In areas where burning is strictly regulated, valuable time can be lost positioning ground crews and preparing the ground site. By the time everything is ready, conditions may have become too dry or windy to permit burning,” says Newell.
The gelled-gasoline helitorch was developed in 1978 by Western Helicopter Service Inc. of Newberg, OR, and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
In 1982-1983, these prescribed burns cleared 100,000 acres of brush.
“Despite this progress,” says Newell, “there are still about five-million acres of brushlands currently in a fire hazardous condition within the area for which the California Department of Forestry is responsible. So we are really just getting started in clearing out these dense masses of potentially hazardous materials. Providing optimum fire suppression and resource management options, while protecting the soil and water land base, is the long range goal of our chaparral management program.”