Graham Warwick/WASHINTON DC

With wildfires making headlines from California to Florida, Bombardier believes it has picked the right time to step up efforts to sell its CL-415 waterbomber into the USA. Although it is popular in Canada and with southern European nations that face the same seasonal battle against brushfires, the CL-415 and its predecessor, the CL-215, have only recently made inroads into the US market.

"The time is now," says Tom Appleton, president of Bombardier's Amphibious Aircraft division, arguing that the mounting damage caused by wildfires in the USA "-requires a shift in thinking and approach" to fighting fires.

"We are making a strong pitch this year to [US] federal and state governments," he says. Proposals have been made to sell two CL-415s to the California state government, and a further 10 to the US Forestry Service, but both face significant budget hurdles. Nevertheless, Appleton remains optimistic of a breakthrough.

The reason lies in the statistics. Bombardier says that, since 1985, more the 9,000 homes have been destroyed by wildfires in the USA, and deaths have reached "double figures". In 1996 in the USA, the company says, wildfires consumed more than 2.4 million Ha (6 million acres) - the largest one-year total since 1952 - and suppression costs exceeded $1 billion.


The problem is growing as people move out of the cities and into the surrounding countryside, says Appleton. Defined accurately, if inelegantly, as the "urban-wildland interface", this zone is the largest concern for wildfire management in the future, he says, and presents a very different firefighting environment.

Protecting the increasingly populated countryside around the USA's largest cities presents a problem for firefighters, says Appleton, because these areas are heavily wooded, with limited water supplies and restricted accessibility. These factors decrease the ability to contain and suppress fires and so increase the risk to people and their homes, he adds.

Appleton believes this threat calls for a departure from the traditional US approach to fighting wildfires, which is to contain the fires with indirect attacks using aerial tankers to drop long-term retardant ahead of the advancing flame front. This requires substantial infrastructure, "-and firefighters have to predict where the fires will be".

The key to protecting the urban-wildland interface, Appleton believes, is speed of response, and a direct attack on the flame front. "Suppression, not just containment, must be the objective," he says. "Direct attack requires a tool that can deliver quick, frequent and massive water attacks directly on the flames." US federal firefighting agencies lack such a tool, he says, and face an "operational gap" which exposes the countryside around cities to the risk of wildfires. Here is where the CL-415 comes in. Appleton describes the twin-turboprop waterbomber as "the right tool for the job". At $20-23 million each, however, the Canadian amphibian is a hard sell, particularly against military-surplus aircraft converted to tankers and flown by private operators under contract to the US firefighting agencies. "Governments are the only ones who can afford new aircraft," he admits. Hence Bombardier's focus on marketing to the federal and state agencies.

In the context of the urban-wildland interface, Appleton says, the CL-415 offers the opportunity for a sustained initial attack on the flame front by scooping water from sites close to the fire. Average scoop-to-drop cycle time is 8min, he says, compared with the average 45min required for a tanker to return to the airport and reload with retardant.

Appleton says the result is a significant increase in productivity, with a CL-415 able to drop some 117,500 litres (31,000USgal)/h, compared with just over 38,000 litres/h for a notional 7,600 litre-capacity converted tanker. Compared with the Bell 212 helicopter frequently used for direct attacks in the USA, the CL-415 is six times more productive and 40% more cost-effective, he says. Appleton admits that the much larger Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopter "does quite well" in firefighting because it carries more than the CL-415 and cycles quickly, "-but it is slow and does not have much range or endurance".


Countries such as Canada, France, Italy and Spain recognise the initial-attack effectiveness of the CL-215/415. Operators measure the effectiveness differently, but Appleton says France has been able to contain 95% of all fires within 4Ha. Quebec has seen a 50% reduction in the area burned and Spain has reported a 30% decrease despite twice the number of fires.

There are signs of US interest. Los Angeles County has a cross-seasonal lease agreement with Quebec under which two CL-415s are based at Van Nuys airport for two months a year. North Carolina, meanwhile, has put two used CL-215s into service.

Bombardier is now lobbying to keep funds for two CL-415 in the California state budget, with a decision expected by mid-July. The company has also submitted a proposal for 10 aircraft to the US Forestry Service, for which Appleton admits there is no budget. The sight of smoke blanketing Orlando, from wildfires raging across Florida, can only strengthen his case.

Source: Flight International