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Inaer/Spain:

Help from on high

Introduction

The risk of forest fires is at its maximum in Spain during the heatwaves of the summer months. In the past ten years, more than 200,000 hectares of woodland have been destroyed by fire. The members of the fire department based near the village of Guadalupe in south-west Spain are on permanent standby at the height of the season, ready to be called out with their fire trucks, and with their AS350 B3 fire helicopter.

Article: BEATA CECE

 

When asked what was the worst fire he’s ever dealt with, fire chief Jesús Pulido, who coordinates firefighting missions in the Extremadura region, answers without hesitation: “It was nine years ago. The fire started over there,” he says, pointing to the range of hills just above the village of Guadalupe. The weather was particularly hot and dry that day, even for July, and there was a strong wind. Within nine hours, the wildfire had reduced 8,000 hectares of pine forest to ashes—that’s roughly 3,200 acres, or the equivalent of 10,000 football pitches. Ten helicopters and countless fire trucks had to be mobilized to bring the blaze under control.

The INAER Ecureuils used during firefighting missions are equipped with a Bambi Bucket.

ALWAYS PREPARED, AT 45°C IN THE SHADE

Extremadura has one of the hottest climates in Europe. Each summer, the risk of forest fires grows more and more acute as the temperature rises to its seasonal peak. The firefighting crew led by Mr. Pulido remains on constant alert at this time of year. Their mission headquarters are situated just outside Guadalupe, in the hills above the village. The site includes a helipad, two outbuildings for storing firefighting equipment, and a house where the on-duty firefighters, pilots and technicians can relax between missions. A book lies on the table in the common room, open at the page where the reader was interrupted by an emergency callout. “There are days when we are called out three times in a row,” relates Mr. Pulido, “and other days when we fly directly from one intervention to another without even having time to return to base.” For transport, he and his team use an Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3. This multi-role light helicopter is equipped with a Bambi Bucket, a collapsible container attached to a hoist that can scoop up and drop up to 1,200 liters of water. The AS350 B3 is operated by INAER, a service provider specializing in mission-critical operations such as water bombing and fire prevention. Manuel Cano is the INAER key account manager responsible for supervising firefighting operations in the Spanish regions of Andalusia and Extremadura. We meet him on the edge of the Guadalupe helipad, his hand above his eyes to shield his vision from the burning heat and blinding light of the sun: “When it’s this hot and there’s a wind blowing, it takes just a few minutes for the tiniest spark to generate a huge blaze. That’s why we need helicopters ready to take off immediately. And if the fire spreads, we may need to mobilize additional support by bringing in helicopters from other bases nearby.”

The pilot never needs more than ten minutes to reach the site of a forest fire.

A NERVE-WRACKING EXPERIENCE

As soon as the alarm sounds, the AS350 B3 takes off with the pilot and five firefighters on board. “Our guys never need more than ten minutes to reach the site of the fire,” reports Mr. Cano proudly. While the fire-fighters are busy digging fire trenches and beating out the flames, the pilot takes off again in search of the nearest body of water. Hovering a few meters above the surface, he lowers and fills the Bambi Bucket, then returns to the site of the intervention. With a single flick of a switch, the pilot discharges the contents of the bucket onto the flames and immediately turns around to scoop up another load of water.
Working in such close proximity to a forest fire is a nerve-wracking experience for the pilot, especially if it covers a wide area. The smoke obscures his view not only of the surroundings but also of other fire helicopters operating in the same airspace.
“There is an increased risk of collision with overhead power lines or with other helicopters,” says AS350 B3 pilot Jordi Ferrer. To avert this danger, if a mission involves several aircraft, their flight paths are coordinated by one helicopter flying at a higher altitude than the others, serving as a kind of airborne control tower. Despite these safety measures, firefighting missions demand extreme vigilance and push everyone concerned to the limits of their endurance. “Stress and fatigue quickly build up to very high levels, especially if it takes several hours to bring a fire under control,” points out Mr. Ferrer. The people most at danger are the firefighting crews on the ground, whose escape route might be suddenly cut off by a change in wind direction. This is when experience counts most, and the absolute priority is to ensure that everyone is guided to safety. “We aren’t heroes,” says Mr. Ferrer. “We simply try to do our job as best we can. And if at the end of the day we’ve been able to stop the fire from spreading and causing even more damage, we can be satisfied with our work. This thought helps us get over all the stress and fatigue.”

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

A reference in first-aid

INAER is Spain’s leading provider of aerial emergency services and aircraft maintenance, specializing in mission-critical operations such as medical evacuation, civil defense, sea and mountain search and rescue, coastal and fishing surveillance, firefighting, training, and aircraft maintenance. INAER is part of the Avincis Group, one of the world’s leading providers of aerial emergency services and a member of Babcock International Group plc. The operator manages a fleet of approximately 170 aircraft, including 45 Airbus Helicopters aircraft. In 2013, INAER Spain coordinated 5,300 firefighting missions, representing a total of 7,100 flight hours.