The article starts off by emphasizing the importance of natural resources for the future of a nation, then focuses on disasters adversely affecting those resources, specifically forests: Forest Fires in particular. Turkey has been fighting Forest Fires with conventional means thrughout history and has traditionally been one of those countries worst affected. Recent investments in building up the capability to fight forest fires, especially in the air, however, have proven invaluable and the results of the last two years have been generating highly satisfactory outcomes, placing Turkey amongst those countries with the highest success rates. To get the details of aerial Fire Fighting in Turkey, the editor talks to Captain Pilot Kemal ÖZBAKIR, who is the Head of the Aviation Department of the General Directorate of Forestry [GDF] and his Deputy, Captain Pilot Mahmut OKUDAN.
S&H: How would you describe the Aviation Department of the GDF?
Cpt. Plt. K. ÖZBAKIR: We, the Aviation Department, are a unit under the Department of Forest Fire Fighting within the General Directorate of Forestry [GDF]. The organization of this Aviation Unit has been designed with headquarters at the GDF Main Facilities and with Depot Capabilities at the Etimesgut Air Base Hangars section, where our team of highly experienced pilots and highly trained maintenance/repair technicians are based. During periods which we define as the Fire Season, our aircraft and associated personnel are deployed to prepared bases established within the sensitive to fire regions of the country, whose management are then transferred to the Regional Directorates.
S&H: When was the Aviation Department founded?
Cpt. Plt. K. ÖZBAKIR: The foundation of the Department of Aviation goes back to the year 1988. During one of his visits to France, the then PM Turgut ÖZAL was given a demonstration of how the French used helicopters in fire fighting, not only with water bombing, but also for the purposes of command & control and liaison of personnel and other means.
Upon his return, PM ÖZAL tasked the GDF towards acquiring similar capabilities, as a result of which 6 helicopters were ordered from France: 3x AS355 Ecureilles, and 3x AS365 Dauphins. The final assmebly of those platforms were carried out at the Etimesgut Air Base and pilots and initial technicians were employed from amongst retired Army Aviation personnel.
S&H: What can you tell us about the missions of the Aviation Department of the GDF?
Cpt. Plt. K. ÖZBAKIR: Our first priority is getting Fire Fighting experts to the scene of the fire for aerial observation for an early assesment of the overall situation. Aerial surveillance will provide us with the first approach to fighting the fire, because what you see on the ground will be very limited, while aerial observation will give you the full picture.
S&H: Thus a fast situational awareness is very important!
Cpt. Plt. K. ÖZBAKIR: “Yes, of the utmost importance! It is vital for the controller of the fight against fires to see the whole picture which gives him the optimum solution on the ground, which directly effects the management of the crews on the ground.
Because the crews on the ground, either on foot [equipped with chainsaws and other special-tools], or on specialized vehicles, actually carrying out the fight, can only see and assess the immediate surroundings. Therefore, assessment of the situation in the air is the alphabet of the work, and this is very important. The second important point is intervention in the shortest possible time, which is the response time that is the key for the success of the fight against the fire. This response time is scientifically defined to be 30 minutes today. The next important thing is getting fully equipped teams to the scene of the fire, especially at remote and even impossible to reach areas, where we again use helicopters.”
The Captain then continues to detail how the ground crews go about doing their jobs.
“Up till 1995, the main task of the Aviation Dept was getting to the scene of the fire for assessment and getting the first responder ground crews at the site. In 1995 the concept of aerial water bombing by helicopters was defined. As, the GDF did not have any aircraft/ helicopters for this purpose, the necessary platforms were leased under a service procurement method thru open public tenders. While in the beginning, the lease was realised on a yearly basis, in time multi-year lease methods became applicable.
Today, the mission of the GDF Aviation Department, defined under the Fight Against Forest Fires is to contribute towards the optimum utilization of existing capabilities in a move to make the best use of available resources.”
S&H: How is the Fire Season defined?
Cpt. Plt. K. ÖZBAKIR: Under the associated Forestry Laws, the Fire Season is defined as the period between May 1st to October, 30th.
The lease of aerial water bombers is specified for those dates. Conversely, under annual averages, the minimum time of flight guaranteed under the lease do correspond to the actual times of flight. Starting in the year 2020, we will begin receiving our own water bombing helicopters under the Turkish Utility Helicopter Program [TUHP], where a total of 20 dedicated S70i FireHawk helicopters will be delivered to the DGF.
As a result, this program of leasing will be terminated in phases and we will start using our own helicopters. Meanwhile we continue to build up our own technical infra-structure in preparation for such a capability in-house.
S&H: How do you organize and deploy to meet the 30 minute requirement?
Cpt. Plt. K. ÖZBAKIR: Firstly a cost-effective approach needs to be defined. Hence, the ‘30 minutes standard’ becomes very important. Because after the thirty minutes, costs become very complex and start multiplying. Although we argue that natural resources are the assurance of our future, fighting a fire that has gone out of control will not always be successful.
Today, we are able to respond to any fire within the defined ‘sensitive to fire forestry regions’ of Turkey in much less than 30 minutes. Our aim is to decrease this even further to be able ensure success everytime. That is the ultimate goal in our deployment plans and organization.
Today, any air platform under our management, whether owned or leased, is able to reach a water source in a 5 minute flight. In a given region, for example the Muğla Regional Directorate, the ‘sensitive to forest fire’ areas; are each adorned with 200 water sources, spread around equi-distantly under a five minute flight distance planning. These can be water resoirvuars, water collection holes, mini damns, or small pools. All these have been designed for the Bambi bucket with 1.40 meters, for ease of operation.
Today we can ensure a water source within a ‘5 minute flight time’ throughout the fire sensitive areas in Turkey.
S&H: Is the sea an option?
Cpt. Plt. K. ÖZBAKIR: Of course! If you can reach the sea within this time, it is the natural choice.
Cpt. Plt. M. OKUDAN: Fighting forest fires, is a race against time. As Capt. ÖZBAKIR pointed out, our main concept is early and effective response. Many countries in the world focus on the same approach.
We closely monitor the efforts of other countries to the same end. Years of experience accumulated, terrain structure, highrise mountains as well as counter- compartmentalized mountains, all together have shown us that Turkey is not best suited for fixed wing water bombing. Consequently we concentrate mainly on the rotary winged concept. In this approach, the most important factor is the ‘turn out time’ which is time needed to fill the bucket, and dump it over the fire and turn around. The world standard for this turn-out time is from 7 to 14 minutes.
Our goal is to lower this standard to 5 minutes and establish it on a nation-wide basis. Today more than 1000 water sources with a capacity of over 1000 tons each, are operationally ready and are scattered throughout the fire sensitive regions of Turkey like a network. This number increases to 2,822 water sourcers of various sizes, when you take the whole of Turkey.
Seperately we also utilize amphibious aircraft as a complement to our helicopter operations, especially in permitting land-scapes. This combined approach has been giving us very successful results. The statistics of the last two years, indicate the lowest forests fires [in terms of lost/damaged forests] compared to the previous years.
S&H: How does the GDF Aviation department operate?
Cpt. Plt. K. ÖZBAKIR: With the the start of the fire season, defined from May 1st onwards, we deploy to regional centers of sensitivie to fire areas like İzmir, Muğla, Antalya and when required to Istanbul, Adana and Çanakkale with our Command-Control helicopters. We have 12 helicopters available: 6x Bell 429, 3x AS 355 and 3x AS 365. The 3x AS 365 Dauphins have been put on sale, so that we operate with 9 helicopters. The Bell 429 helicopters are recent entries into our inventory, any three of which can be installed with FLIR systems. Depending on the development of the mission, we decide which helicopter becomes FLIR capable. Thus, our Bell 429 helicopters equipped with the FLIR system gives us real-time image capability, day or night. So we can track every development in every detail on the ground, from crew/equipment movements, to the way the fire acts, on a real-time basis.
The same images are also simultaneously transmitted to the Fire Management Centre situated at the Department of Forest Fire Fighting at the GDF HQ in Ankara. Here, under the guidance of the Head of Department Mihtat ATEŞ, various experts oversee and guide the crews on the ground and assets in the air so as to optimize the fight against the fire. To this end, the Fire Management Centre can call upon additional assets based in other areas, make tactical decisions on the use of the capabilities on the ground and in a way acts exactly like a Fire Operations Centre, in the same way as a combat operations centre.
In actuality, the task of fire fighting comes under the responsibility of Regional Directorates. The leased water bombing assets are allocated to those regional centres and are under operational readiness at various predetermined locations. Their management and utilization come under those regional directorates. Acting as the Centre, Ankara can see the whole picture at the Fire Management Centre over the entire regional directorates and since several simulataneous fires are quite common, Ankara has the authority to relocate assets depending on how the situation develops. Otherwise Regional Directorates, equipped with the required expertise, are adorned with the overall authority to manage and administer the fire fighting.
S&H: How has the organization been structured?
Cpt. Plt. K. ÖZBAKIR: The Forestry Dept today operates with 28 Regional Directorates. These then branch out to 243 Directorates of Forest Administration. For example, the Muğla Regional Directorate of Forestry works with 10 Administrative Directorates. Nation-wide, the Administrative Directorates oversee 1397 Chieftains, formed as units.
A total of 776 Fire Early Warning Towers, operate throughout Turkey on a 24 hour basis, where 214 of those towers are equipped with a camera. Additionally 107 cameras have been installed in areas sensitive to fire. The towers and the cameras constitute the backbone of the Fire Early Warning System and they are all integrated over the Regional Directorates and the Ankara Fire Management Centre, both in RF for voice communications for the towers and visual for the cameras. We are currently realising a study on Unmanned Tower Systems.
The statistics of the last ten years show on the average 2800 fires annually, both small and large. Under the same average, some 8.863 hectares of forest are damaged every year. When we come to 2015, the annual average drops to 2,150 fires and 3,218 hectares damaged. Thus not only the number of fires has dropped considerably, but damaged forest area has also decreased more than two-fold. Which shows that both the method of intervention and the method of fighting have been successful. Particularly the drastic drop in damaged forest areas are well below the European standards.
Cpt. Plt. M. OKUDAN: There are many issues in the fight against forest fires. The first of these are the preventive measures. This effects the number of fires over any given time. On average each year, there are 2,800 fires. The second issue is the fight against fires, this is our main issue. On average over the last decade, roughly 8,000 hectares have been damaged, while, for example, last year, this was reduced to 3,000 hectares, which is a clear indication of the success of the fight, in that the fires were stopped before escalating. Today we have the best results compared to European nations with similar climates, namely the Mediterranean countries.
S&H: What can you tell us about your goals for the future?
Cpt. Plt. K. ÖZBAKIR: Relative to the future, we are currently working on a two-pronged deployment structure. While Ankara continues to build up its capabilities further as the Command&Control and Maintenance Centre, we are aiming for the creation of 2 Fire Fighting Squadrons to be centralized in Izmir and Antalya. The Izmir-based squadron will be responsible for the area bordered by the Eşen Stream in the southeast of Muğla, all the way upto Istanbul, while the Antalya-based squadron will responsible for the area from the Eşen Stream all the way to Samandağı, at the Eastern tip of the Hatay Province.
We are designing our Fire Fighting Fleet based on the 20 S70I FireHawk helicopters that will be delivered under the Turkish Utiliity Helicopter Programme, whose deployment will mainly be the İzmir and Antalya Squadron Bases, including some in the Ankara Base. These bases will then determine the various deployments within their areas of responsibility for temporary deployment during the fire seasons. These platforms will be our own inventory platforms and hence will require additional infrastructure capabilities. Where today we deply to temporary bases during the fire season, in the near future both İzmir and Antalya will be built-up permament bases with the full amenities.
In conjunction with the above strategy of two permanent bases, we are also looking at the acquisition of a 20-25 seater fixed wing aircraft for the liaison purposes of technical teams, special experts and the management between the three bases: Ankara, İzmir and Antalya!
We will decide on the acquisition of fixed wing fire fighters, after our own water bomber helicopters enter service. Up till then we plan to continue the lease of amphibious aircraft.
S&H: Thank you for sparing your valuable time for our readers and we wish you continued success.