Tim Sheehy: Wildfire Caucus to serve as a critical asset in combatting raging fires

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this July 30, 2018, photo, firefighters control the Tollgate Canyon fire as it burns near Wanship, Utah.

America is on fire. Every year for the past decade, the United States has suffered a record number of ferocious wildfires. In 2020, more than 1,500 fires were started in Utah alone. While not all fires that raged throughout the US this past year were catastrophic infernos, on the whole, they still managed to threaten human life and property at unprecedented levels.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NFIC), wildfires burned more than ten million acres in 2020, shattering the previous record set in 2015. Last year’s devastation marks the highest yearly total since modern recordkeeping was instituted.

Unfortunately, in 2021 we are likely to see this trend of ravaging wildfire growth continue. Already, fires since 2017 have amounted to damage and economic losses of more than $300 billion in the US.

There are several explanations for the proliferation and escalating damage of wildfires, and addressing those causes requires renewed attention of local, state and federal governments and — when it comes to climate change — international cooperation.

Toward that end, in January 2021 two Western legislators formed a new caucus in Congress, the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus. Led by Reps. John Curtis, R-Utah, and Joe Neguse, D-Colorado, the caucus will help Congress prioritize “the needs of our local fire crews, our western communities, and fire mitigation and recovery efforts in the wake of increasingly more damaging and more deadly wildfires.”

Collaboration among like-minded legislators from states with exposure to wildfire danger, who advocate for the prioritization and adequate funding for effective mitigation and recovery from wildfires, is a welcome and timely development. The federal government should heed their recommendations by examining all available options for firefighting, mitigation and recovery, and select the most up-to-date approaches that prove to be the most effective and environmentally sound.

Presently, the bureaucratic complexity of wildfire mitigation efforts is a hindrance to expedient fire response efforts. Current interagency protocols often lead to disagreements and significant delays to deployment of critical aerial fire suppressant services in dire situations. For that reason, new regulations are needed to streamline the process for government agencies responsible for employing critical assets to fight fires.

As the CEO of a veteran-owned and operated aerial firefighting operation, I know firsthand that state and federal governments are increasingly reliant on next-generation technologies and services to fight wildfires. That is why our arsenal consists of some of the most environmentally safe and innovative suppressant technologies, including SuperScoopers that drop “scooped” water from existing sources and cutting-edge infrared drones that map wildfires and facilitate fire suppression.

We’re not the only ones convinced that water scoopers are essential components of effective firefighting. In 2012, the United States Forest Service sponsored a report conducted by the RAND Corporation that determined the reliance on water via naturally existing resources made reloading Scoopers both easier and safer.

Our UAVs supplement targeted response efforts by providing critical data on the most obscured parts of a wildfire in real time. As the US DOI has come to learn, this capability supplies fire management teams with rapid intel and the refined imaging needed to make pivotal decisions from a safe distance.

These tried and tested methods of aerial firefighting are the efficient and environmentally safe advancements that should be prioritized and funded for use in the 2021 wildfire season. While we hope and pray this year won’t set new records for wildfire volume and intensity, sadly, experience has taught us to prepare as if it will. Thankfully, the Wildfire Caucus and firefighting professionals are dedicated to fine-tuning our arsenals to defend human life, animals and property this wildfire season.

Tim Sheehy | Bridger Aerospace

Tim Sheehy is CEO and an active pilot at Bridger Aerospace, an aerial firefighting service based in Belgrade, Montana. He is also a former Navy SEAL and recipient of the Bronze Star with Valor and Purple Heart.