Athens, Hellas and the wildfire that had travelled cross country for about 15 miles, was now reaching the city.
The fire was running through the upscale neighborhood about as fast as a person could run. There were in fact a lot people doing just that and if we didn’t get the fire spread slowed down it looked like a few people might lose more than their properties.
Firefighting with a Helitanker in urban areas means people, vehicles, animals and other aircraft running around in the smoke and flames. It can get chaotic.
The primary goal is to do no harm and the primary thing not to harm is you.
Wildfires in urban settings get priority over wildfires where people and property are not in immediate danger. When the smoke reduces visibility it becomes very important to separate yourself visually and especially physically from the other aircraft trying to do the same job.
We had about 8 large helicopters and perhaps twenty fixed wing air tankers. Five of the large helicopters were our own Erickson Air Crane Helitankers
Fire was leaping indiscriminately down tree lined streets and blazing through parkland filled neighborhoods and so far all of our efforts were being directed towards structure protection.
It can be immensely satisfying to save houses, structures and barns but when a fire really gets ripping you can’t save everything and just as often you may get directed to places where the need doesn’t seem as great as the homes you had been protecting.
We had spent the last 15 minutes in some heavy smoke and nasty turbulence to stop a series of spot fires in houses where some where a man was trapped in a house. I had punched a pretty good hole in the roof of one small house to cool the contents and while the damage was considerable the fire would not be spreading to the neighbor’s house.
It’s never an easy choice to drop on a house. If the fire is just on the house periphery or has only began to burn the porch or roof you can use a lighter coverage level of water or retardant and get the flames under control.
On some fires where structures are in close proximity to each other it becomes essential to put the house fire out so it doesn’t get other houses involved.
We make drops through roofs, front windows, knock porches off the back of houses and often have to flatten houses that are doing nothing more than being a good ignition source for the next door neighbors house.
The good and bad of carrying up to 16,000 pounds of water is that you can do a lot of good and if needed you can use that mass of water to get the water or retardant inside a building. You had better be darn sure there is nobody inside the building and in some cases I have dropped through barn doors and roofs knowing that the animals inside could be harmed with the drop but burning to death is a much worse option .
The main difference I see with fires in urban areas in Europe versus North America is that in Europe we make most of our own calls on where to drop and we are often the only firefighting asset available.
On big fires like we had in Athens, with gale force wind ,smoke and poor visibility we have only seconds to decide in the smoke where and what to drop on. Get it wrong and its all on you.