Fighting Northern California Wildfires with a Helicopter Flamethrower

While massive wildfires continue to burn through Northern California, fire officials are always looking for new techniques to gain containment in terrain that is difficult to maneuver. Firefighters use techniques such as creating firebreaks or backburning, but these can be very difficult if the terrain includes deep forests and steep hills.

This had us reminiscing about a technique used in 2015 to fight the Rocky Fire just east of Clear Lake. The unique way they created a fireline was with their bad-ass heli-torch, which is basically a helicopter equipped with a flamethrower. For unknown reasons, fire officials no longer use the practice, but it’s definitely fun to watch the heli-torch in action. See for yourself:

If you follow the tactics of firefighters, you will see them setting controlled burns around wildfires with a driptorch (pictured below). But this requires having men on the ground and covering what is typically many miles of fireline. The heli-torch can quickly cover much more ground.

There are a couple different types of helitorch, but they all work largely the same way: combine aviation gasoline (which doesn’t evaporate as quickly as standard gas) and a gelling agent (CAL FIRE uses something called Flash 21), light it on fire, and shoot it out of a giant contraption hanging a few dozen feet below a helicopter.

The idea is to start a continuous line of fire over hundreds or thousands of feet, even in rugged and inaccessible terrain. It also ignites the treetops, which is difficult for ground-based operations.

There has to be some sort of legitimate reason CalFire no longer uses the practice, but watching the machine in action from years ago is a blast. Stay safe our there, firefighters!

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California


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