“We might be the first generation to grasp our position in and impact on nature. We might also be the last generation to be able to take action,” were the striking words of Dr. Mmaphaka Tau, Deputy Director of the National Disaster Management Centre of South Africa during the first Wildfire Ready Convention which took place at the Lourensford Wine Estate in Somerset West on the Western Cape on 28 November 2018.

The two-day convention had the attendance of various fire prevention associations from across the world (governments, service providers, volunteer agencies and fire services) focused on the future of managing wildfires in the so-called Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) and emphasized the importance of the integrated fire management in mitigating the risks of the appearance and spreading of unwanted wildfires.

The convention participants experienced the opportunity to learn precious know-how on modern-day challenges in wildland firefighting by speakers representing globally-renewed entities such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Environmental Affairs of South Africa. The industry as whole was also present and pro-active, mainly focusing on emphasizing the importance of an integrated fire management approach to today’s wildfires and providing insight on certain ground and aerial means that are already a global standard in dealing with wildfires.

Representing Spain, Valencia-based company Air Tractor Europe, a distributor of Air Tractor agricultural and firefighting aircraft since 1996, sales manager Hugo Arceo was one of the keynote speakers that focused on bringing to the attention to the public the importance of an integrated fire management approach by utilizing the globally popular Air Tractor AT-802 fixed-wing water bomber.

“Having aerial resources – especially a combination of Air Tractors and helicopters – as part of your approach to wildland fire-fighting is essential. It adds significant value to your ground fire-fighting efforts,” explained Arceo before even discussing the effectiveness of aerial firefighting operations and emphasizing the very unique capabilities and the effectiveness of the cost-effective 3,104 liters AT-802 water-bomber.

Speaking about the aircraft’s advantages, Arceo explained that it is available as land or amphibious (known as the Fire Boss) configurations. The aircraft can be airborne in less than 10 minutes (turbine engine requires no warm up and unnecessary wasting of fuel and engine resources) with speed that can attack the fire when it is small and benign.

Pointing out that “fires don’t get tired and don’t take a break”, Arceo said, “The AT-802 is really a global water-bomber of choice as demonstrated by a very simple fact that currently there are 800 Air Tractors flying across the globe with more than half of them are engaged in wildland fire-fighting. It is not by accidents that aside of South Africa also nations such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia, Spain, Portugal, France, Cyprus, Israel and many others have entrusted the safety of its people and forests to AT-802,” Arceo concluded.

Aside of precious discussions and know-how sharing, the convention was also highlighted by the aerial display organized by Kishugu Group, a South African company headquartered in Nelspruit, is recognized as a global leader in supplying integrated fire management services around the globe. Johan Heine is company president and was honored at the conference. The company currently has active operations on five continents, ranging from training and equipment, to fire management plans and contracted teams.

Kishugu Group’s aviation component operating under a subsidiary company named Working on Fire (WOF) Aviation, showcased a Cessna C-206 spotter aircraft, a Bell UH-1H Huey helicopter, an Air Tractor AT-802 Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) and ground teams that jointly demonstrated the effectiveness and interaction between aerial and ground firefighting means and teams with firefighters on the ground providing critical and specific instructions before every single drop is made from the fire-fighting aircraft.

The dynamic demonstration clearly proved the importance of an integrated response when dealing with a wildfire. It demonstrated the unquestionable competence of Kishugu Group that since 1986 has flown more than 60,000 flight hours in aerial wildfire-control and suppression operations as a result of more than 9,000 fires that have been extinguished in South Africa.

Being of critical importance to South Africa, since 2003 WOF is the trusted supplier of aerial firefighting services to key role players within the wildland firefighting industry in the southernmost country in African continent. The company currently flies an approximate 4,000 hours and responds to an average of 300 fires annually. For this purpose, it operates a mixed fleet of planes and helicopters.

WOF’s Cessnas C-182/206/210 single-engine, piston aircraft are used for aerial command, control, safety and operational command over wildfires. These planes observe, analyse and predict fire behavior. They are used to supply all relevant parties with updated information. Also in service with WOF is a fleet of Bell UH-1H Huey single-engine utility helicopters that are intended for the fast deployment of attack teams, but also for support of aerial fire-fighting operations through use of an underslung 1,000-liter Bambi Bucket fire-fighting system. The heavy artillery of WOF, however, are its four Air Tractor AT-802A single-seat, Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) aircraft that entered service in 2013 after being acquired from Air Tractor Europe, which also provided WOF with the necessary pilot training.

With AT-802 fire-fighting aircraft being one of the highlights of the convention, the commercial, sales-oriented promotion of the aircraft by Hugo Arceo was impressive, especially knowing his efforts with Air Tractor Europe has succeeded in the sale of over 150 new and pre-owned Air Tractor aircraft to different customers in 13 countries worldwide, including to the governments of Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Cyprus and Israel.

According to WOF, by being fast and highly-maneuverable, the AT-802 is operationally effective and economical and can be programmed to discharge its 3,104-liter load in pre-set volumes and intervals, enabling the pilot to optimise water, foam and retardant dispersal and to make precision drops on a number of critical points on a fire. “The AT-802 is an excellent aircraft for someone who actually uses it as a working tool on a daily base for years and currently flies an average of 350 AT-802 hours during active firefighting operations annually.”

“The settings of the computerized FRDS water-bombing system allow the pilot to disperse the load evenly along the flanks of a grassland fire, pulling a line of up to 1,000 meters,” explained Koos Kieck, an ex-South African Air Force pilot that now works as a WOF AT-802A bomber pilot. “On the other hand, one can also ‘open the gates’ and eject the full tank within 1.68 seconds to penetrate thick forest canopies. Once emptied, the plane returns to the airfield at speeds of up to 350 km/h (217 mph) to refill its tank, an operation that takes about two minutes after which the AT-802 then returns to the fireline,” Kieck pointed out.

With an endurance of 3.5 to 4 hours and, depending on the proximity of the runway, an average turnaround time of about 14 minutes, WOF’s AT-802s are delivering roughly 14,000 liters per hour onto a fire. With these impressive performances, the AT-802s obviously became the fire-bombing aircraft of choice for WOF and resulted in sending into retirement the Dromaders and Thrush crop sprayers that had being adapted for aerial firefighting.

The first Wildfire Ready Convention was an extremely successful event progressing with initiatives, providing a window for promoting interoperability issues and the beneficial integrated deployment of assets to combat the impacts of climate changes, particularly wildfires in a world of limited resources.

The apparent thirst for knowledge on safe and effective conducting of fire-fighting operations, as well as the obvious need for close contact between institutions, societies and industry showed to be a warranty for the success of the event that, hopefully, will became a tradition for South Africa growing on an annual base in the incoming years.

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