The government’s helicopter has received mixed reviews from firefighters.
Some are of the opinion that the helicopter’s water drops were ineffective, especially during the Thimphu fires, while some say it played a major role pointing to the Haa fire.
Both sides are correct.
Bhutan is using a helicopter to fight forest fires for the first time in its history so there will be a learning process.
What we can learn from the experiences so far is that there needs to be some discussion between the helicopter company and other relevant agencies like the departments of forests and disaster management, and other organizations that are involved during such disasters.
Using the helicopter to fight fires is expensive at USD 2,500 an hour. This expenditure is not fully recovered if firefighters say that its services are ineffective.
Therefore there is a need to determine how to use the helicopter efficiently.
Based on feedback, it seems the size of the helicopter’s water basket is a limitation when the source of water is located far from the fire. When this is coupled with strong winds, the water seems to scatter and fall as a drizzle, limiting its impact on the ground.
But when there is water located very close by, like during the Haa fire, the helicopter can make several rapid sorties and continuously bombard a fire.
While the real explanation may be more complex, what emerges is that the helicopter may only be able to fight some fires with its water basket.
Firefighters have rightly pointed out that for some fires the helicopter could be used for logistical support and aerial observations instead, especially large fires.
While the cabin of the helicopter can seat only up to six or seven, a few sorties could still transport the required number of firefighters and equipment to areas where they are needed. The helicopter could also provide fire teams with food and the reassurance that if any of them are in danger of being encircled by the fire or are injured, they can be rapidly evacuated.
Aerial observation to guide the effort on the ground would also be a huge boost in the way we fight fires. But for this to occur a communications link between the helicopter and the ground will have to be established either using mobiles phones or having the required kind of radios.
However, concerned agencies must also consider the use of drones as this would be a much cheaper alternative.
Any new effort will experience hiccups. But if no changes are made following these hiccups then any effort goes to waste.