Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft

It was Colorado’s worst wildfire season in a decade. In 2012, 4,167 Colorado wildland fires raged across the parched terrain. Flames destroyed more than 648 structures, killed six civilians, burned more than 384,803 acres and caused at least $538 million in property losses. Tens of thousands of residents evacuated their homes. Favorite tourist sites closed, obscured by smoke and haze, lifting Colorado’s economic damages to the stratosphere. So often, the flames were so intense and the smoke was so thick that firefighters and rescue workers did not know which structures were still standing or how to best contain the fire.

In response, Colorado’s legislature authorized the creation of Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) to provide new tools and technology to wildfire managers. Rather than putting more funds toward air tankers to suppress fires, CFAC’s focus is on early detection and initial attack using Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMA). Two MMA’s were operational in January 2015, bringing a new generation of intelligence and detection capability to the wildfire fight.

The MMA has proven its ability to improve community protection, reduce firefighter exposure, and decrease suppression costs by stopping small fires before they become destructive and unmanageable. The PC-12 is a high performance turbo-prop aircraft that can cruise and work safely at altitudes up to 30,000 feet, using state-of-the-art Infrared-Sensor technology and on-board computer systems to provide real-time wildfire information to incident commanders and firefighters in the field. .

The infrared imaging sensors penetrate smoke and haze and detect small wildfires before they grow into significantly larger fires.  Instead of sending in ground crews who may struggle for days to find the source of a fire, as in the aforementioned 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, the planes obtain the fire’s location, intensity, and behavior.  Sensor Operators download this information into the Colorado Wildfire Information Management System (CO-WIMS), giving fire managers’ immediate access to fire intelligence on smartphones and tablets.  Using aerial infrared cameras at night to map wildfires at low-altitudes is nothing new; using them in the daytime to spot new fires from high altitude is a breakthrough.

News of the Multi-Mission Aircraft capabilities spread to other states, which requested the planes. In August 2015, the MMAs aided in the detection of new and spreading fires in three of the nation's worst historic fires.

“The national structure for combating wildland fires is a cooperative, interagency system involving local, state, and federal agencies.  “When Colorado needs help to fight wildfires in our state, we rely on other states to send resources,” said State Fire Director Paul Cooke.

The MMAs spent 28 days and over 117 flight hours supporting Oregon and Washington fire suppression efforts.  Aircraft support consisted of large fire mapping, firefighter safety oversight, and patrolling to detect new fires.  Patrols identified at least 16 new fires in Washington and Oregon.  Colorado’s MMA assignments were staggered to ensure that at least one aircraft remained stationed in Colorado at all times.

The MMA’s ability to find fires before they get out of hand benefitted Incident Management teams,  “Without the MMA, we would have evacuated more people sooner and would have had to stay out of their homes longer than necessary,” Jayson Coil Battalion Chief Special Operations and Wildland, Sedona Fire District.

The infrared cameras aboard the MMAs are so sensitive that one of them detected a campfire with six people sitting around it from 28,000 feet during a training flight. Having “eyes in the sky” with this level of detail helps reduce firefighter deaths by keeping them out of harm’s way

In 2015, MMAs flew over 380 hours in Colorado, detected over 17 new fires, provided considerable fire intelligence on over 40 missions and assisted with seven Search and Rescue missions.

MMA will be dispatched at no cost to local firefighters or law-enforcement officials if they request them. Federal agencies are able to request the planes for a fee. The point of contact for counties to report wildland fires, to request the assistance of a DFPC Fire Management Officer, or to request the Multi-Mission Aircraft, is the State of Colorado Emergency Operations line: 303-279-8855.

Click here to learn more about the MMA.

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Authors: Caley Fisher, DFPC Public Information Officer and Wendy Hanophy, DFPC Program Assistant