Throughout January 2017, more than 90 wildfires raged across parts of Chile. Thousands of people lost their homes, and thousands more were evacuated as firefighters battled the blazes on the ground and from the air.
By most accounts, some 600,000 hectares (nearly 1.5 million acres) succumbed to the worst wildfires to ravage Chile in recent history. Since late December 2016, the country has seen fires sweep into rural and urban zones alike, displacing thousands. Historically high temperatures and an extended dry spell have created favorable conditions for the fires’ propagation and have exacerbated firefighting efforts.
To help combat the fires, aid was sent by a host of countries including the United States, France, and Peru. Still, it has been an all-out effort for firefighters, land brigades, the Chilean military, and even civilian aircraft operators. Below, we hear from two pilots who helped in the fight in January.
Captain Alessandro Pulleghini Flores of the Chilean Navy flew an AS365 Panther in the region of Pumanque, the then-epicenter of the fires, in mid-January. Under the direction and coordination of the Chilean National Forest Corporation (CONAF) and the Chilean Army, Pulleghini and his detachment were first sent to Coinco, 10 miles southwest of Rancagua. With bambi buckets slung to the helicopter’s underside, they attacked active fires, supporting the work of land brigades and helping to contain the fires. With Coinco controlled, Pulleghini was next dispatched to the region of La Patagua, east of Santa Cruz, where he battled fires for 6 consecutive days.
Could you describe the kind of days you had fighting the fires?
Alessandro Pulleghini Flores: We operated nonstop from 8 am to 3 pm. After that we had to stop due to the high temperatures. We operated with bambi buckets discharging 700 litres each time, reloading water from any available source such as lagoons, swimming pools, reservoirs, etc.
How did the AS365 perform under such pressure?
A.P.F.: We operated with the Naval 50 which is a Panther AS365, with a maximum takeoff weight of 4,100 kilogrammes, which allowed us to operate around an hour and lift approximately 780 kilogrammes. One of the advantages of using this helicopter is its great manoeuvrability and the easy change configuration from one mission to another. We were able to switch quickly from firefighting to rescue or EMS.
How effective were helicopters in battling the fires?
A.P.F.: The mission of helicopters that perform firefighting is fundamental. Even though they release less water than airplanes, they can go back and forth more quickly, meaning they achieve greater efficiency in extinguishing or controlling a fire. On the other hand, the aerial support for land brigades is fundamental because the land needs to cool off [through water drops] and even the personnel working benefit from the water falling from above. The Panther performed more than 400 effective water releases.
On ordinary days, the pilots of private operator Ecocopter fly utility missions. To help their countrymen during the worst of the fires, chief pilot Mauricio Neira and his team joined the aerial fight with two H125 helicopters. Dispatched to Pirque, Alhue, Linares and Cajon del Maipo, the extra workload (Ecocopter’s main fleet continued operations on its utility contracts) required coordination and effort beyond the call of duty on the part of its pilots, crew, maintenance and operations staff.
Could you describe how your firefighting operations went?
Mauricio Neira: Once the aircraft crew is activated, the helicopter is ready for takeoff in 15 minutes. During this time we can plan the flight to the point of emergency. Once there, the aircraft is at the sole disposal of CONAF and we continue according to their instructions and requirements.
What were the H125’s advantages during these missions?
M.N.: Each helicopter discharges 1,000 litres. We’re able to monitor the discharge from the cockpit using equipment which allows the pilot to define the weight he can carry, thus improving flight autonomy and aircraft performance so that we can operate at maximum capacity. Normally this permits 2.5 hours of operation before refueling.
Helicopters allow the land brigades to create the firewall and attack spots with difficult access, while keeping the fires from extending beyond the defense line. The advantage of the H125 is its versatility. Its weight to power performance allows it to operate in almost every environment.
How would you describe the past 3 weeks with the fires?
M.N.: Sad, exhausting, demanding and fortunately: mission accomplished.