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To Fight Wildfires, California Turns to a Family With a Fleet of $8,000-an-Hour Helicopters

The fire began shortly before dawn on Oct. 26, when a spark from a telecommunications line landed in the scrubby grass and sagebrush of Santiago Canyon. As the day grew hotter and the winds stronger, the blaze raged across hundreds of acres of eastern Orange County, Calif., filling the sky with smoke to the coast, 15 miles away. The fire intensified and spread west toward the residential neighborhoods of Irvine and Lake Forest; two firefighters were so severely burned they had to be induced into comas, ultimately spending months in the hospital. Brian Fennessy, the county fire chief, helped the police evacuate more than 75,000 residents and at times wielded an extinguisher to put out spot fires.

Southern California is the most technologically advanced area in the world for fighting wildfires. Fennessy could call on dozens of fire engines and more than 2,200 firefighters from Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties. He had on hand a firefighting air force of about a dozen helicopters and planes. But the Santa Ana winds fanning the flames made it impossible for the fleet to fly. Without the help of planes and helicopters, firefighters predicted that the Silverado Fire, as it came to be known, would roll over more than 2,000 homes within 24 hours.

Weeks earlier, Fennessy had signed a contract with Coulson Aviation Inc., an aerial firefighting company based in British Columbia. Coulson had recently outfitted a huge Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter with equipment that could drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire-retardant chemicals—about 10 times what the more commonly used Bell 412 helicopter can unload—in a little more than two seconds. Unlike a fixed-wing firebomber such as a Boeing 747 or Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which can carry similar loads, a Chinook doesn’t have to return to an airport to refill. It can suck up water from a river or lake and shuttle back and forth to a fire, dramatically multiplying the tonnage it drops per hour. “Three thousand gallons is an amazing load of water dropping out of a tank,” Fennessy says. To put it in perspective, that much water fills a 7-foot cube, weighs 12 tons, and carries enough momentum to seriously injure a person on the ground.

Coulson’s Chinook had another potential advantage: It could fight fire at night. The company had spent a decade working out how pilots could safely fly these copters low to the ground in darkness using night vision goggles. It was time for a test. “The best time to fight fire is when the temperatures are down, the winds are down,” says Britt Coulson, who’s co-president and co-chief operating officer of the company with his brother, Foster. “At night you have no one else up in the air, and there’s much less smoke,” because the lower temperatures and higher humidity mean fires burn less intensely.

As evening set in on the 26th, the winds slackened in Santiago Canyon. Mel Ceccanti, Coulson’s director of rotorcraft flight operations, was in the Chinook’s pilot seat, ready for it to make its nighttime debut. First, a police copter with “forward-looking infrared” imaging equipment—night vision gear that can see through smoke better than goggles—took off to assess the situation. At about 9 p.m., police radioed that conditions were good. Along with two Bells, the Chinook took off from the former U.S. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, near Irvine, and headed for the blaze, which was approaching a housing development in Lake Forest. “I remember seeing the houses and then seeing the fire and thinking, ‘We’re not going to keep it out of these houses,’ ” Ceccanti says. “The winds were still very high, and the fire was still spreading fast. I looked at my co-pilot and told him, ‘There’s three days’ worth of work here. This is not going to be good.’ ”

Coming in over the flames, Ceccanti could feel the helicopter bouncing in turbulence. He held down the drop switch, and a curtain of water fell from the Chinook’s belly. Turning 180 degrees, he headed to a nearby pond to refill. Over the next two hours, he repeated the trip 21 times, returning to the airport when he was low on fuel before heading out again. An hour later, the fire attack coordinator radioed Ceccanti to say he was done. The development was safe.

The next day’s winds were light enough that the rest of the firefighting squadron—aircraft belonging to the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Orange County, and the Coulsons—could join crews on the ground. In the end, no homes were lost in the Silverado Fire. The Los Angeles Times declared: The “Irvine fire was a recipe for disaster. It became a rare victory for firefighters in grim year.” The Chinook made the difference. “If it hadn’t been for that helicopter,” Fennessy says, “we’d have lost a number of these homes.”

Coulson Aviation has been busy since then. The 2020 fire season had barely sputtered out when the first wildfires started this year. In early May extreme drought conditions led the National Weather Service to declare a “red flag” wildfire warning across parts of Northern California. Soon after, a 1,300-acre blaze erupted in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles. Coulson was on hand with a C-130 and a Boeing 737; within a week, the fire had been 84% contained, and no buildings were destroyed.

By late July, 257% more acreage had burned in California than in the same period last year, and Governor Gavin Newsom had declared a state of emergency in five northern counties. About 90 large blazes in 12 states have burned roughly 1.8 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, including the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, the largest in the U.S. this year, and the Dixie Fire, California’s biggest in 2021, which has burned an area larger than New York City. Smoke from these fires and those in Canada has blanketed the continent in a haze, sending air quality alerts all the way to the East Coast.

Coulson is flying two C-130s, a 737, and five helicopters for the Forest Service as part of a national contract that’s included battling the Dixie Fire. Separately, it’s flying a “Quick Response Force” that includes two Chinooks and a Sikorsky S-61 in Los Angeles, Orange, and Ventura counties. On July 9, one of Coulson’s Chinooks, flying with the support of LA County aircraft, unloaded 80,000 gallons of water in 32 drops from 2:30 a.m. to 4 a.m. while fighting the Tuna Fire in Malibu. “If that fire had hit the ridge, she was going into $10 million homes,” says Wayne Coulson, Britt and Foster’s father and the company’s chief executive officer. “It was a good kill.”

In 1960, Cliff Coulson settled in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. Back then, the family business was timber. Cliff had served on a tank crew with the Canadian Army in World War II and built on his experience working with armored vehicles and road-building equipment in Normandy. He contracted with giant harvesters operating in the lush forests of British Columbia, providing the bulldozers, trucks, and other heavy machinery needed to cut down trees and haul them to sawmills. It was hard work and not that lucrative. When Cliff’s youngest son, Wayne, 17 years old at the time, joined the operation in 1978, it had about 15 employees.

Wildfires were on the company’s radar only because they could be financially ruinous. One day, Wayne was on a bulldozer pulling a log loader up a hill when the bulldozer threw a spark. Soon a blaze was raging. Wayne knew that a consortium of local timber companies had bought a pair of Martin JRM Mars seaplanes, giant aircraft built in the ’40s that could drop 7,000 gallons of water at a time. “My dad always said, ‘Anytime you get a fire, phone the Mars,’ ” Wayne says. So he did. The family could’ve lost about $4 million worth of timber. Instead, it was out a few hundred thousand dollars. He’d never forget the power of sheer volume.

In 1982, Cliff had a stroke, and Wayne started running the company. He acquired sawmills, timber cutting rights, and, in 1987, an S-61 for extracting logs from remote mountainsides. By the ’90s, the company was one of the biggest family-owned forestry companies on British Columbia’s coast, with more than 1,000 employees. The helicopter fleet grew to four. In the daylight-starved winters, they were rigged with “night sun” floodlights to illuminate the timber being extracted; in summer they were used to fight fires in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California, hauling hundreds of gallons of water in buckets slung from long lines.

The contracts with state and federal agencies were a relatively stable source of income at a time when timber was not. In the early 2000s the U.S. imposed an import tariff that devastated Canadian producers. “We went from a thousand employees down to 500,” Wayne says. “We had to reinvent ourselves.”

Coulson invested in technology and bolstered its fleet. An early focus was how to better carry water: Buckets slung from long lines can become dangerous projectiles if released prematurely. In 2004 the company modified an S-61 to carry water in an internal tank. This led to the development of Coulson’s retardant aerial delivery system, a tank apparatus for the C-130 that can drop as much as 4,000 gallons of water or retardant. It designed versions for the Chinook, as well as other copters and planes, and licensed the system to the U.S. Air Force.

In 2007, Coulson bought the Martin Mars planes. To guide them, the company acquired a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter to circle over fires and direct the fight. Coulson began converting C-130s and six 737s purchased from Southwest Airlines Co. as well as Chinook and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks in a partnership with Unical Group, an aviation parts and maintenance business.

Figuring out how to fight fire at night became a priority after the 2009 “Black Saturday” fires in Australia’s state of Victoria, which burned more than 1 million acres and killed over 150 people. “They were sending the 61 ahead of the fire to see if they could see any people running or trapped, to pick them up, because there was a fire line being pushed along at 40 to 50 miles an hour,” Wayne says. The company thought it could’ve limited the damage had it not had to pause operations at night.

Operating in rough, unfamiliar terrain at low altitudes makes fighting fires tough enough; flying in the dark makes it that much harder. So pilots practiced using night vision goggles with accompanying helicopters designating drop points by laser. In 2016, after seven years of development, Coulson signed its first nighttime fire-suppression contract, with Victoria, limiting the arrangement to the smaller aircraft of its fleet.

Currently, more than 400 employees help operate three dozen aircraft on four continents. Since Australia’s fire season alternates with the Northern Hemisphere’s, business is year-round; the company also operates in Bolivia and Chile, and last year it won a contract in Indonesia. Typically, contracts specify a fixed rate to keep an aircraft on standby for a certain number of days and then an hourly rate when the aircraft is dispatched. (Southern California Edison is paying $18 million for a 150-day contract with the Quick Response Force, and county fire authorities are being billed $8,000 an hour for the Chinooks and $6,000 for the S-61.) To make sure equipment is in the right place, jets such as the 737 are flown internationally as needed. But short-range craft like the Chinook have to be put on cargo ships or tucked inside a massive Antonov An-124 Ruslan heavy transport, a plane six times the size of a 737.

The investments have been financially risky. “We spent tens of millions of dollars without contracts,” Wayne says. But the bets have paid off. Higher sustained temperatures driven by climate change have led to drier weather, more fires—and more work. Coulson competes with mom and pop operations running a handful of crop-duster-sized planes, as well as big companies such as Erickson Inc., which operates 20 Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopters, and Columbia Helicopters Inc., whose fleet includes two dozen Chinooks. “There’s competitors that fly big helicopters, and there’s competitors that fly big airplanes,” Wayne says, “but there’s no single competitor that flies big airplanes and helicopters. We’re the only one.”

The Coulsons see California as a proving ground for how wildfires will be fought in the future. Their company’s first job in the state was in 2007, an historically bad wildfire season when officials needed the Martin Mars’s payload capability. In the years since, as the population has grown, homes have been built deeper into exurban areas, endangering more lives. “You have this interface between flammable vegetation and people’s homes, and that means they’re inherently at pretty high risk,” says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the Institute of the Environment & Sustainability at the University of California at Los Angeles.

By the time the Silverado Fire broke out, the state was already reeling from a season that included five of the six most devastating blazes in its history, including the North Complex fire, which killed 16 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Cumulatively, wildfires killed 33 people in California last year, and the danger lingers. About 5,300 people live within 5 miles of the Dixie Fire, according to a New York Times wildfire tracker. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that as of Aug. 2 the blaze was about 30% contained.

To fight back, state authorities have adopted ideas from modern military planners. The emphasis is on gathering data, processing it quickly, and using it to direct resources. Coulson’s Chinook had help during the Silverado Fire: Southern California’s landscape is dotted with hundreds of sensors to monitor temperature and humidity, plus cameras mounted on hilltops as well as satellites to keep watch. The information is fed into a supercomputer at the University of California at San Diego that models risk. Once a blaze is detected, a Beechcraft Super King Air turboprop—manned by a pilot, an “air attack” supervisor, and a mission operator—provides more surveillance using a camera in its nose. That data updates the modeling and alerts firefighters to problem areas that could emerge in two, four, and six hours.

Coulson’s latest project is modifying four Cessna Citation jets that will get to a fire faster than the King Airs and have more advanced data-synthesizing capabilities. “It’s bringing in a military-type platform into this civilian world,” Britt says. The company is working with UCSD to feed data about the drops into the supercomputer models so they update in real time. “Say you’ve got a prediction that the fire is going to come over the hill and burn 200 homes,” Wayne says. “Now we’ve got a CH-47 dropping 2,800 gallons on the head of the fire. We map the fire 30 minutes later and can see, ‘Hey, we’ve knocked the head out.’ Instead of being reactive, we can be proactive.”

The company is also developing a system that will allow intelligence-gathering aircraft to send data about optimal drop points directly to inbound tankers, whose bellies will automatically open and close based on the information. The technology will calculate how many drops will be needed at the outset of a mission, eliminating the need for guesswork. “It’s more of a surgical strike,” Wayne says.

To a layperson, the Coulsons might sound like they’re reading aloud from a Tom Clancy novel. But there’s a reason for that. Fighting wildfires is like fighting a war. Battles never end: Rain brings growth that will become fuel, droughts make the fuel drier and prone to combust, and every place that burns will burn again. A month after the Silverado Fire, Santa Ana winds whipped another conflagration over the hillsides near its burn scar, destroying 31 structures and forcing 25,000 residents to evacuate. Orange County called in Coulson’s Chinook, and it dropped more than 90,000 gallons of water in one night.

And as in battle, there are casualties. Last year one of Coulson’s C-130s was dispatched to a fire south of Canberra, Australia, along with a 737. The 737 descended into the fire first, hitting fierce winds. After dropping its retardant, the crew sent a message to the intelligence aircraft on the scene that conditions were “horrible down there. Don’t send anybody, and we’re not going back.” Heeding that advice, the C-130 flew to a fire 36 miles to the east that was threatening a koala reserve. But conditions there were little better. The plane dropped retardant along the foot of a hill from an altitude of 190 feet. As it finished, it entered a thick cloud of smoke. The pilot apparently became disoriented, and the plane crashed. All three men aboard were killed instantly. Wayne, Britt, and Foster took a helicopter to the crash site as soon as they could. “Everything was burning around us,” Wayne says.

As he sees it, opportunity lies not only in the scope of the catastrophes ahead, but also in their unpredictability. With the world experiencing unprecedented droughts and temperatures, the nature of wildfire control is changing in ways not yet fully understood. Dumping more water and retardant is part of the solution, but so is making sure it’s landing in the right place. “There’s an old saying in business: You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” Wayne says. “We need to build models for fighting wildfire, because it’s changing all the time. And if we don’t change with it, it’s going to kick our ass.”


©2021 Bloomberg L.P.