A lesson from Chile’s 2017 ‘megafire’: International aerial firefighting standards a must

By Dan Parsons | November 19, 2020

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 18 seconds.

In 2017, a “megafire” in Chile — ranging from north of the capital Santiago 500 miles (800 kilometers) south — drew firefighters, helicopters and airplanes from more than a dozen nations, and launched a major multinational effort to quench the blaze. 

It also underscored the need for internationally recognized standard operating procedures for aerial firefighting, according to Eduaro Boisset, chief pilot at Chilean helicopter operator Servicios Aereos Kipreos.

Helicopter Express firefighting in Chile
Pilot JR Liming with U.S. operator Helicopter Express flies a firefighting mission over Santiago, Chile, in 2017. Helicopter Express Photo

“It was the perfect storm, like in the movie, because we had many, many years of dry with no rain,” Boisset said during the Helicopter Association International’s Aerial Firefighting Conference on Nov. 17. “Very high temperatures; that year we had 44 degrees Celsius, that’s 112 Fahrenheit. Very, very, very strong winds.”

When it was finally put out, the fire had killed 11 people including police, firemen and civilians. More than 1.2 million acres were burned and one town completely disappeared, Boisset said.

The severity of the fire warranted help from all over the world. At least 180 helicopters, airplanes and heavy machines and 19,000 firefighters converged on Chile to aid the effort. Of those, 635 firefighters came from 17 different nations, Boisset said.

“We had different crews speaking different languages from Argentina, Canada, United States, Russia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Spain and Chile,” Boisset said. “Imagine the number of people talking some Spanish, but different Spanish, some English but different English.” 

“It’s very important to speak in the native language of the country where you are firefighting,” he added. “For example in Chile, we’re supposed to speak Spanish, but . . . we speak a different Spanish that is so fast, it’s like a machine gun, so our Chilean pilots have to break a little bit, stop, talk slowly, talk more clearly with good pronunciation and try to help people who are helping us from other countries.”

The fleet of helicopters dropping water on the fire was equally diverse, with Bell 407s and Hueys operating alongside Airbus AS350s in the same smoky skies as Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks and Boeing CH-47 Chinooks, Boisset said. 

aerial firefighting in Chile
Chile’s 2017 megafire claimed 11 lives and many homes. Helicopter Express Photo

Loreto Moraga, president of the Chilean Helicopter Association (ACHHEL), agreed that to combat increasingly severe blazes fueled by climate change, “to face big threats, international collaboration is essential.”

“Safety guidelines for aerial firefighting worldwide is another must,” she said during the conference. Collaboration should be based on reciprocity, in which off-season operators travel abroad to help other countries fight fires during their season and vice versa. 

While the U.S. is winding down a record West Coast wildfire season, Chile is only weeks away from the beginning of its season, Boisset said. South American aerial firefighters could gain valuable experience working in their off season in North America while U.S. and Canadian crews could maintain proficiency and provide much-needed aid to the Southern Hemisphere when it annually starts to burn, Moraga said.

That principle does not always hold for smaller countries as it does for larger economies like the U.S. or larger South American nations that export aviation services but do not often import firefighting helicopters. 

In Latin America, large economies like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina have more restrictions on aviation services than do smaller countries like Uruguay, Paraguay and Central American nations that import aviation services, she said. 

“For real, back-to-back fire seasons when in the Northern Hemisphere is in the off season, and would like to come to the Southern Hemisphere to keep going with the firefighting operations, we would like and we wish to do the same thing in the other way, because our people need as well to work and to get specialized and get more experience.”

Chile, Moraga said, is a completely open market and has no reciprocity requirements, but was greatly aided by outside firefighting aviation services in 2017 and on other fires since.

While strategic-level coordination in 2017 fell to Chile’s National Emergency Office and National Forest Corporation called CONAF, tactical coordination fell to the multinational force assembled for frontline duty. It was essential to establish a base of operations, a communications infrastructure and protocols, identify sources of water and define a traffic pattern for aerial drops, Boisset said.

Boisset suggested drawing rules and standards for international cooperative aerial firefighting, that would be updated every six months to “keep them alive” and incorporate new techniques and technologies. 

“One of the lessons we learned after this big fire . . . is we don’t have an international normative that guides our operation,” he said. “If people are coming from different countries to Chile, they don’t have information on how we operate and it’s very important that it’s not a Chile operation, it’s international. So if I go to Argentina, Bolivia, to Brazil for fire season, it’s the same guide.”

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