Water vs fire


Dino Marcellino reports on aerial fire-fighting work in Italy

Aérospatiale SA315B Lama I-MURE (c/n 2509) with a rigid Bambi bucket prepares to depart for the fire on the mountain in the background.

Ground troops organised in small detachments and an aerial force of helicopters and planes strategically moved from base to base depending on the season, all of them – people and aircraft – armed mainly with water to combat a very insidious and devastating enemy: fire.

In Italy, forest fires are a recurrent event, mainly in the summer months, but depending on the local weather situation also in winter. Often, fighting a fire can be like fighting a battle, and most of the time, as in a real war, the event is caused by humans. When a forest fire happens, fire fighters must be ready, equipped, trained and able to move immediately; they must know the territory and the enemy.

Italy’s authorities have gained great experience in facing emergency situations. Its effcient Dipartimento della Protezione Civile (DPC, or Civil Protection Department) is responsible for protecting life, property, settlements, animals and the environment from the consequences of natural disasters.


How does the DPC work when it has to fight forest fires? There are two levels in the DPC organisation: regional (Italian territory is split into 20 regions) and national.

At regional level, the heart of ops is an operations room located at Vigili del Fuoco or VVF (Fire Brigade) regional headquarters, named Sala Operativa Unificata Permanente or SOUP (Unified Permanent Operations Room). The VVF manages ground operations in accordance with the Anti Incendio Boschivo (AIB, Forest Fire-fighting Volunteers) and a Direttore Operazioni Spegnimento (DOE, or Extinguishment Operations Manager) who manages fire-fighting operations.

The SOUP verifies reports of a fire, directly with the person who made the report ifpossible, to determine the location, type and extent of the blaze, the presence of infrastructure and danger to the population. Having assessed the situation, the SOUP takes the necessary measures for an intervention, mobilising the AIB teams and the DOE and, if necessary, air assets.

The AIB is the backbone of ground intervention; a lot of cities and villages have a local AIB station with a team equipped with off-road vehicles equipped with tools to operate on the ground, water tanker trucks, a mobile water basin and volunteer citizens. AIB volunteers are the first response to the emergency, and each station is ready to move to support other stations out of region if required.

Air assets for fighting fires are provided locally by private companies through public tender. The helicopters used are mainly light machines, such as the Aérospatiale SA315B Lama and AS350B3 Ecureuil, because they are affordable and have the manoeuvrability to fly in narrow and steep alpine valleys.

The CL-415 can drop up to 6,000 litres (1,319 gallons) at a time, although for the Piedmont fires they were only loaded up to about 70–80% of their capacity.
A Bombardier CL-415 prepares to scoop water from Lac du Mont Cenise, just across the French border, used in the Piedmont fire-fighting operations.
Vigili del Fuoco AB412 VF 74 working in Piedmont with its Bambi bucket; this agency sends its helicopters to regions when they are required.

Companies providing air assets for forest fire emergencies must despatch aircraft in a very short timeframe, as requested by the authorities. Helicopters used are equipped with buckets to drop water and the company providing them also provides trucks to refuel the helicopters near a fire area.

There are often no natural lakes, rivers or ponds near a fire front from where the helicopters’ buckets can be refilled in a short time between drops. This necessitates the use of artificial water basins to refill the helicopters. If water availability is so scarce that it is not possible to refill the helicopters’ buckets; the VFF and AIB teams can rapidly assemble mobile basins, refilling them by water tank truck or pumping water from elsewhere.

In Piedmont, the second-largest region in Italy and sixth most populous, authorities use the Fire Weather Index or FWI (also known as the Canadian Method) to forecast the risk of forest fire. The FWI predicts the possibility of fires occurring and spreading in a giventerritory by assessing variable factors like meteorological parameters and humidity. A daily bulletin is issued to various public agencies predicting the fire danger, allowing fire prevention and any intervention activities to be organised and the population to be informed of the possible danger.

Vigili del Fuoco Bombardier CL-415 I-DPCN (c/n 20008) dropping water on a fire in Piedmont in 2017.

The national DPC has an overview of what happens across all Italian territory for all emergencies, including forest fires. From its emergency room in Rome, the DPC can coordinate intervention and it has authority to use staffand equipment from all other state services and armed forces.

Regional services are often unable to cope with an evolving emergency, and the local light helicopter fleet is not enough to face the size of the fire. A regional operations room can contact the DPC centre in Rome to request the help of the heavy aerial firefighting fleet managed at national level by the Centro Operativo Aereo Unificato (COAU, Joint Operative Air Centre).

The COAU’s fleet comprises Bombardier (formerly Canadair) CL-415 aircraft and Erickson S-64F helicopters that are officially assigned to the VVF, but are managed by COAU. These aircraft are strategically located throughout Italy, with the CL-415s positioned at airports close to the sea (for example, Genoa Airport near the Ligurian Sea) or great lakes and in areas where fires happen seasonally.

Four S-64Fs are available, each named after a Native American tribe chief: Nuvola Rossa, Toro Seduto, Geronimo and Orso Bruno. The COAU can also additionally request and take on helicopters from the Air Force, Navy, Army, Carabinieri (Police) and VVF, so it can assemble an effective air task force.

Fighting the fires

Looking at a real emergency shows how the fire-fighting organisation works.

Piedmont experienced one of its biggest fire crises in the autumn of 2017. The month of October was characterised by favourable conditions for the break out and subsequent rapid spread of forest fires: it was the driest month for 60 years, the hottest October since 1958 and there were strong, hot föhn winds.

A dangerous mix, and if you add the activities of arsonists at night, authorities faced a dramatic and dangerous situation. Indeed, there were more than 30 different fire locations, all in alpine valleys, burning at the same time. AIB volunteers and Fire Brigade staffworked day and night, often flankedby citizens living in the area worried by the closeness of a fire to their homes. Sometimes, extinguished fires took on new energy the next day.

During forest fires in the region, the author visited four parallel valleys (Germanasca, Chisone, Noce, Susa) affected by fire to observe how aerial fire-fighting operations were carried out.

Three local companies – Eliossola, HeliWest and Airgreen – provided Lama and Ecureuil helicopters to fight the fires. Early in the morning, the DOS flew a helicopter reconnaissance mission to determine the extent of the fire, and its effect on houses and buildings in danger, winds, visibility and the presence of cables and power lines.

Eliossola AS350B3 Ecureuil I-ERMS (c/n 2214) refilling its Bambi bucket from a mobile basin that is filled by a Vigili del Fuoco water tanker.
Four S-64Fs are available for fire-fighting work, each named after a Native American tribe chief.
Vigili del Fuoco S-64F Skycrane I-CFAH (c/n S64-080) operating in Piedmont in 2017.
The S-64F’s water tank has 9,000 litres (1,979 gallons) capacity and is refilled by using either a pond snorkel or a sea snorkel.

The DOS, in accord with the AIB commander, moved AIB teams on the ground and issued orders to the helicopter crews on where to operate. First helicopters on the scene were Lamas and Ecureuils of the regional fleet.

Lamas were equipped with a rigid 700-litre (154 gallon) bucket, the Ecureuils with a collapsible 1,000-litre (220 gallon) Bambi bucket. Both bucket systems have similar controls. They are suspended on a cable attached to the cargo hook of the helicopter, such that the pilot must fly over a water source and lower the bucket to refill it. The pilot checks the quantity of water by observing the refilling and the weight by the feel of the flight controls. Usually, water is released in a single drop, either above a single point whilst in the hover or distributed across a short strip of ground.

Operations were frenetic, with only a few minutes between rotations and flights interrupted only when it was necessary to change the pilot for an obliged rest or to refuel the helicopters. To save precious time, a fuel truck was detached close to the operations area. For maximum efficiency, some AIB members assisted the pilot in plunging the bucket into the mobile basins. Despite the great work done by the local helicopters, it was not possible to control the fires so the DOS was forced to ask for other machines. Even though there were fires in other regions (Lombardy and Lazio) it was clear the Piedmont fires were an exceptional event that needed all available forces mobilised.

At the request of the regional SOUP, the COAU detached further assets to the region: VVF AB412s, an Aviazione dell’Esercito (Italian Army Aviation) AB205, a Carabinieri AB412 (painted in Corpo Forestale livery), and VFF CL- 415s and Erickson S-64Fs.

Decisions about where to send assets were made by considering local terrain, the refilling and dropping requirements of each machine and the safe coordination of simultaneously having so many aircraft flying in limited spaces affected by smoke.

The VVF AB 412 worked near the villages, using its own mobile basin. The Army AB205 refilled at a private fishing basin and dropped water at the foot of a mountain, while the CL-415 and S-64F attacked the biggest fires. To see them refilling anywhere possible and dropping the water flying in the smoke was impressive.

Erickson Air Crane S-64F

The S-64F was developed for fire-fighting and does it well. It is probably the most effective machine for this work; maybe a limitation is its operating cost, but there is a positive cost-efficiency ratio as it is decisive in many fire emergencies.

The helicopter is equipped with two different systems to refill its water tank, which has 9,000 litres (1,979 gallons) capacity. One is a pond snorkel used to refill from rivers and basins while the helicopter is hovering; the other is a sea snorkel used to refill from the sea and large lakes with the helicopter flying at 35 to 40kts (64 to 74km/h).

Using the pond snorkel, refilling time is 50 seconds. During the October 2017 Piedmont fires, when water sources were close to the fire area, the S-64F was able to do a rotation every five minutes, an impressive quantity of water dropped on the enemy, so much so that some water basins were all but drained and some drops were a mix of water and slime!

S-64F pilots adopted different techniques to drop the water depending on the wind direction, the presence of smoke, the location of the fire front and requests from the AIB and DOS. They delivered water either in a single salvo taking just three seconds or split the 9,000 litres between multiple drops. They also changed the altitude and speed depending on the vegetation, obstacles and terrain. In all cases the helicopters operated at low speed, between 40 and 50kts (74 and 92km/h), to allow for precise and effective attacks.

Pilots manage the different drops by pressing a button on the collective, so they can control the quantity of water delivery on the ground. They can choose between nine modalities, so the coverage level ranges from 3.8 to 30.4 litres (0.8–6.6 gallons) per 10m2 (107ft2). The author observed the pilots following the fire front during split drops, changing direction without dispersing or wasting the water load.

The S-64F is a heavy helicopter and its large rotor generates a lot of downwash, so pilots drop from heights of 65 to 200ft so the downwash doesn’t reach the fire and fan the flames. AIB volunteers and other people working on the ground must also pay close attention so they aren’t struck by the waterbomb; a mass of water of 9,000 litres is very dangerous, so all operations must maintain safety.

An S-64F flying in very poor visibility; the main rotor downwash creating a challenging flying environment.
A Carabinieri AB412 in the livery of the now-disbanded Corpo Forestale dello Stato, preparing to extract water from a lake using a Bambi bucket.


The same precautions are adopted operating the CL-415, because it can drop 6,000 litres (1,319 gallons) at a time.

The October 2017 operations in Piedmont were not optimal for the CL-415, because it needs large water sources such as large lakes or the sea. The nearest Italian lake, Viverone, was 15 minutes’ flying time away, which meant the aircraft were only able to do a drop every 35 minutes, so it was decided to reload by using water from Lac du Mont Cenise, just across the border in France but nearer.

Besides the fact that the Italian authorities had to ask the French for permission to use the lake, which sometimes led to lost time, this location was challenging to fly. Enclosed by Mont Cenis, a 11,850ft massif, the lake is situated at an elevation of 6,476ft. This meant the aircraft had to fly between the slopes and then make a rapid descent to the lake, passing a few metres above a dam, touching the water as soon as possible. The manoeuvre was made even more diffcult by the strong wind. To have an adequate safety margin for the subsequent climb-out, it was only possible to load 70–80% of the aircraft’s total water capacity. (At sea level an CL-415 scoops 6,000 litres/1,319 gallons in 12 seconds and can undertake a scoop every four or five minutes.)

Despite these challenges, and the resulting lower number of drops, the CL-415 fleet made a precious contribution to the fire fight. The pilots demonstrated their great skill flying in the valleys and in very poor visibility, the aircraft sometimes disappearing out of sight in the smoke. The CL-415 has excellent manoeuvrability, but it still takes great expertise to fly those conditions.

Forest fire-fighting is a complex and dangerous activity; one fire-fighter died in the October 2017 fires. Timely intervention of aircraft is indispensable in the fire-fighting effort, alongside the AIB teams on the ground who also work at night and well beyond the emergency to secure the territory.

All fire-fighting activities must be managed professionally to make the most of the available forces and guarantee maximum safety. The cost for the state and the consequence for citizens is high; an unpleasant consideration is that most fires are avoidable, caused by criminal actions of arsonists and sometimes a lack of attention by citizens.

Some isolated houses were burnt down in the October 2017 fires, but at the end of the month of operations almost all people evacuated returned to their homes; it was wildlife and vegetation that suffered the heaviest losses.

Just as the author was writing this article, a CL-415, an S-64F and three regional helicopters were once again engaged on a fire near three villages affected by the blazes in 2017: Givoletto, Val della Torre and Cafasse.

This shows how the fire-fighting story is one without an end; similar emergencies happen many times every year across Italian territory, though fortunately with little impact, for the most part. This requires fire-fighters and the aircraft used in the mission to be ready each and every day, 365 days a year. AI