Fight at Night


Your Aug. 3 article treated only one aspect of aerial firefighting — daytime activities, when fires are most active. Firefighting officials seem to have ruled out aerial operations at night when the fire has “laid down” and most often is not active. We see instead the photo ops of planes attacking fully active fires in the afternoon when no suppression activities can be effective. Thus, the aerial methods can easily be characterized as expensive and ineffective.

The problem is that any study of fire suppression over the past decade or more shows that no methods are effective.  After 2010’s Cerro Grande (40,000 acres) and 2011’s Las Conchas (150,000 acres), examination showed that nowhere could we see that suppression efforts, costing millions of dollars, had made any difference.

Over the past 15 years, New Mexico and Arizona have lost approximately one-quarter of their conifer forests. Extrapolation of this rate, with current suppression methods, leads to the conclusion that in the next two decades, half or a third of these forests will be gone. Continuing to use outdated methods makes no sense. We have only two options: Change the way we fight fires, or lose our forests. There is no third option.

One solution is to fight fire from the air at night. This is often ridiculed by professional firefighters, as might be expected, since it would change an entire industry. But consider this: In the 21st century, we can use infrared imaging from drones or other aircraft to know exactly where a fire is at night. Tankers coming in at three-minute intervals can put some two acre-feet of water on a fire in one 14-hour period, when the fire is hardly active. Few fires can survive this.  

In most cases, a fire can be put out in one night, allowing ground crews to safely finish the job. Once the proper techniques of attack are learned, we would have options to allow a fire to burn if beneficial (this includes prescribed burns), or to put it out. We would have real fire management ability. Such suppression would buy time to thin or otherwise make our forests healthy.

People say this would be too costly, but compare it with the costs of continuing current ineffective suppression methods added to the costs of forest loss.

It is time to seriously look at nighttime aerial suppression. The alternative is to continue to lose our forests, homes, businesses, historical structures and cultural assets.

Charles Keller
Los Alamos, New Mexico

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