North Carolina Success Story: Beyond Boundaries
North Carolina Forest Service conducts a series of live training sessions to improve aerial response to wildfire
The billboards along the interstate in North Carolina carry an ominous warning: A single ember from a wildfire can travel over a mile.
There is no boundary for airborne embers, so Hannah Thompson-Welch, a Wildfire Mitigation Specialist for the North Carolina Forest Service, and Jeremy Callicutt, a Stanley County ranger, decided they would not stay inside the boundaries of normal simulated training scenarios to fight those embers. They devised a new strategy for combining prescribed fire and training to mitigate wildfires in North Carolina.
Thompson-Welch and Callicutt started organizing live aerial training sessions across jurisdictions and agencies. Combining aerial ignition prescribed fire with training for wildfire resources that support and manage aircraft was an effective strategy to get two things accomplished at once, which is the boundary-less work Thompson-Welch talks about.
“Wildfires know no boundaries, why should we?,” Thompson-Welch likes to say.
In January, 2018 the North Carolina Forest Service, the North Carolina Air National Guard, and the North Carolina State Parks, collaborated to do 1,000 acres of hazard reduction work in three days in the Piedmont (central) region in North Carolina.
Air National Guard helicopters were used for bucket drops to cool off areas of prescribed fire, which included using dip sites. The N.C. Forest Service used its Premo Mark III Aerial Ignition system to drop incendiary ping pong ball-sized plastic spheres to light the fires. Aerial ignition reduced the amount of territory that fireline personnel had to cover, which reduced risks for ground personnel.
The N.C. Office of the State Fire Marshal helped coordinate lodging and subsistence through their partnership with the Air National Guard. There was input from landowners and local residents, as well as city, county, and federal stakeholders. The caretakers of state parks have been anxious about the prescribed burning of park land in the past, but Callicutt said they bought in, too.
There were 50 personnel involved, and four helicopters and one fixed-wing aircraft. The logistics of coordinating a multi-agency training seemed daunting across so many platforms, but Callicutt and Thompson-Welch, who have been colleagues and friends for 15 years, planned the operation for six months, with the help of many others. The results—less fuel for wildfires over thousands of acres—showed how effective the “live practice” strategy is at accomplishing wildfire mitigation goals. The Air National Guard fed the fire personnel and housed them at the barracks in the January, 2018 training.
The strategy was so effective the effort was repeated January 31 and February 1, 2019, and 1,200 acres were burned in just two days with fewer personnel, but more one-on-one individualized training.
“We’re always going to have wildfires,” Thompson-Welch said. “One way we mitigate is through these coordinated training events.”
Thompson-Welch said the prescribed burns were not only necessary live fire work to burn off dangerous fuel loads, the exercises were a training ground for certification. Specific positions all along the chain of work received needed training hours for building capacity and maintaining fireline qualifications.
North Carolina Forest Service helicopter pilots completed bucket training utilizing pumpkins (collapsible water tanks) for the first time during an air operations functional training exercise. North Carolina Forest Service employees attended a course called “A-219 Helicopter Transport of External Cargo,” during the prescribed fire burns.
Welch-Thompson and Callicutt were honored April, 2018 as Employees of the Month for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“We were able to get some training objectives accomplished using some work that already needed to be done, while working with air operations and ground personnel,” Thompson-Welch said. “We involved the operators early on and had everybody singing from the same sheet of music. We were coming from different agencies and regions across the state, but we used common interagency terminology to communicate.”
Here was the real benefit. Callicutt said typically there are serious wildfires in Stanly County every two years and then major, dangerous fires every five years. Those major blazes have been decreased with the larger prescribed burns, he said.
“One box this week we worked on with air resources was 540 acres and we did it in a couple of hours,” Callicutt said.
Callicutt said before the 2018 exercise in Stanly County with the combined agencies, the aerial training for burn work was always around “practice” or simulated events/areas.
Needless to say, the more training in “real” events, the more proficient the pilots and crews have become in dropping incendiary devices and then working to cool the prescribed fires with bucket drops.
There is also a better understanding with the Air National Guard crews about how to fight the wildfires.
“One of the pilots said they were dispatched to Myrtle Beach to help with a wildfire and they had never done any formal training,” Callicutt said. “One of the things they were told to do was go put water on the small fires out ahead of the main fire. And they said they didn’t feel like they were doing anything to help. They were doing the right thing, but they did not have a true understanding of the work.”
It is a daunting task to try and collaborate across so many different agencies and share resources and people for the aerial work in mitigating wildfires. Callicutt said it is worth the effort.
“If you hit a bump in planning one of these, keep going, don’t quit, don’t give up,” he said. “Don’t shoot it down, just try. We put good leadership in place. It wasn’t just me and Hannah. There were some really good folks to make this a success.”