Erickson is adjusting to the strain of 365-day-a-year global wildfire season. A senior executive of the diversified helicopter services company—best known for its fleet of utility and water-bombing AirCranes—discussed the challenges posed by an increasingly burning world during a recent webinar.
Fire season for Erickson used to run 150 days a year. Now it is not only virtually year-round but also substantially more complex and dangerous, according to Erick Nodland, Erickson v-p for center of excellence. Nodland called current fire challenges “extreme.”
Entering 2021, Nodland warned that the fires are only going to get worse. “It is an amazing situation. We are seeing more fires, higher maximum temperatures, amazing change in humidity, increase in droughts, and increase in wind speeds,” he said. “California has been absolutely devastated. Australia has just really burned.”
Nodland called the fires “more intense and more widespread,” crediting contributing factors including urban sprawl, changes in weather, and forest management practices. The fire environment is straining available resources, he said. “The fire seasons have changed and the pressures on our industry have grown on an order of magnitude. These longer fire seasons are stressing out companies’ abilities to provide aircraft, maintenance, and pilots. The downtimes that we used to have are gone because different parts of the world want more and more (aerial) firefighting assets.”
This has spurred a new trend toward throwing more fixed-wing assets—that can drop more retardant—on fires, but also placed a primary emphasis on recruitment and retention, he added.
“Our greatest challenge is the ability to onboard people who can safely operate complex aircraft,” Nodland said. But he also pointed out that the worsening fire situation is driving technological innovation. “It’s so much more than putting water on the fire.” Erickson is exploring fly-by-wire solutions with Sikorsky, using 3D printing to more rapidly and more economically produce parts, has developed new composite rotor blades, and will soon announce a re-engine selection for its new build S-64F+ AirCrane.
However, personnel and technology alone won’t solve all the challenges posed by longer and more intense aerial firefighting. Nodland said governments are just naturally hamstrung in their ability to respond to rapidly changing fire conditions.
“Whenever you try and get a large bureaucracy to respond to flexible and ever-changing environments, you inevitably have inefficiency. It’s not their fault, but it places pressure on us as individual companies to provide those resources in an unknown environment. We have to be able to expand and have better relations with our federal and local agencies so that we can respond more effectively.”