Colombian Air Force Battles El Niño Inspired Forest Fires
By Dialogo February 23, 2016
The Colombian Air Force (FAC) is playing a crucial role in fighting forest fires, which are a rising threat in the country thanks to the El Niño phenomenon. Forest fires have kept Colombia on high alert since 2015, when 4,505 fires were recorded nationwide. The absence of precipitation so far this year in most of Colombia is aggravating the situation: in less than two months, there have already been 765 fires.
The El Niño phenomenon, which began in July 2015 and is expected to continue well into this year, is responsible for low rain levels and the increased threat of forest fires. The dry terrain, the sun's heat, and the drought’s effect on vegetation have made conditions ripe for the ignition and propagation of forest fires, whether they are spontaneous or caused by humans. There has also been a considerable reduction in water levels in aquifers, a circumstance that has led to an emergency lack of water that has endangered towns.
The FAC's ability to respond to emergencies nationwide is vital since the most serious forest fires require transporting water by air. The FAC has also been distributing potable water to towns in Cundinamarca, La Guajira, Boyacá, and Antioquia – the departments that have been hardest hit by the drought in the past few months.
“The FAC has at its disposal the resources necessary to confront the wave of fires that have occurred,” said Lieutenant Colonel Rodrigo Zapata, Director of the FAC National Recovery Center. “We have Bell UH-1 Iroquois and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in Air Units all over the country. These are powerful and versatile aircraft that can carry large volumes of water to help extinguish the flames.”
The FAC helped fight 79 of the 4,505 fires that occurred in Colombia in 2015. This year, it has responded to nine of the 765 blazes, including one from February 2nd-5th in Cerros Orientales in Bogotá that destroyed 25 hectares. A dense cap of smoke was concentrated in the city center, forcing residents to leave their places of work temporarily as a precaution.
The firefighting operation was led by the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management and used several aircraft – two from the FAC, two from the National Army, and two from private companies. The FAC led the air effort, using the Parque Simón Bolívar Lake as a base to supply all aircraft.
“The FAC does not participate in all firefighting efforts because most such operations are conducted on the ground by the Fire Corps and other regional authorities,” Lt. Col. Zapata explained. “However, when it involves forest fires in the tree cap over two meters high, it is imperative to spray water over the flames to extinguish them and prevent the fire from spreading.”
In Colombia, helicopters that fight fires use Bambi Buckets, a device for carrying large amounts of water through the air. Each bucket has a valve on the bottom that is controlled by the crew, and the buckets can be filled at a nearby lake or other water source. Once the helicopter is in position, the water is released to extinguish the fire.
One of the advantages of having the FAC as a first-tier partner in fighting fires is its ability to release water for 12 straight hours. FAC firefighting operations are only conducted during daylight. However, the FAC's specially-trained firefighting corps can refuel aircraft while in flight without risk, Lt. Col. Zapata explained.
“It takes about two minutes to fill a Bambi Bucket. Each one has a carrying capacity of 640 gallons, but in Bogotá, we don’t fill them completely because they are too heavy at that altitude,” said FAC Captain Juan Pablo Castrillón, who piloted a Black Hawk to fight the fire in Bogotá. “Though the circuit was short because the fire was six miles away and it took the helicopter just three minutes to arrive, we preferred to fill a fraction of the tank for an hour and a quarter to bring the most water possible, about 60 percent of the Bambi Bucket.”
Capt. Castrillón, who has fought fire for two years in the departments of Cundinamarca, Antioquia, Costa Atlántica, and Boyacá, said that geography directly impacts helicopter flights.
“The altitude means there is less oxygen in the air and the proximity of the mountains creates a wind dynamic that requires greater [pilot] skill," he added. "There is low visibility because of clouds and the high temperature – all these conditions influence the engine power of the aircraft. In Bogotá, we fly at an altitude of 10,500 feet."
During 2016, the FAC has discharged a Bambi Bucket 435 times, collectively dispensing more than 225,000 gallons of water with a fire-retardant liquid. The FAC has deployed 80 service members to respond to 10 municipalities that were being consumed by flames in January and the first half or so of February.
El Niño effects in Colombia
The El Niño phenomenon is a climatic cycle related to the warming of the Central and Eastern Pacific at tropical latitudes and characterized by the appearance of surface water that is relatively warmer than normal along the coasts of northern Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. In this region, the absence of rain is the most visible effect of El Niño, which also causes a warmer environment.
This weather phenomenon has also had an historic effect on temperatures in Colombia, which is known as the world's rainiest country, with an average annual rainfall of 3,240 millimeters. Bogotá experienced its hottest day on record, reaching a temperature of 26 degrees Celsius on January 27th. This is unusual at 2,600 meters above sea level, where the Colombian capital is located. Likewise, the ambient temperature has been increasing throughout the country. No department has been spared from forest fires during the current El Niño cycle.
El Niño will remain at high intensity during the first quarter of 2016, and its aftereffects will continue through June, according the Colombian Institute for Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies.