How you fight fire with fire

Normal people logically assume the most effective way to put out a fire is with water or a chemical foam, but what if I told you some firefighter crews literally start fires by shooting fireballs from a helicopter onto trees as a method of fire suppression. You’d think I’m nuts, but according to this bit of POV footage from a firefighting helicopter, it’s true.

Check out the somewhat crazy but extremely logical bit of POV footage below.

How does fighting fire with fire work?

Firefighters do not randomly set trees on fire, they choose a planned line of trees to burn, keeping in mind factors like wind direction and how close it is to the larger fire they’re trying to put out.

What a burned line of trees does is create a firebreak or an obstacle to the spread of fire, such as a strip of open space in a forest.

Firebreaks are quickly constructed through prescribed burns or a strategically placed line of fire that burns against the wind in front of an advancing fire. By burning the available fuel the fire will eventually reach, firefighters can stop a larger fire from growing.

Prescribed burns can be started by hand with drip torches or canisters of gas/diesel mixtures where burning fuel is poured into certain areas.

But there are only certain areas hotshot teams can reach and, with time of the essence, you need a fast-moving, larger-than-life drip torch.

Enter the heli-torch.

A heli-torch is a fast and efficient way to make a firebreak.True to its name, it’s a glorified drip torch with a 55-gallon reservoir of fuel dangling a few feet off the belly of the helicopter.

In use since 1975, the heli-torch has been an effective way to squash larger fires much faster than a crew of drip-torch carrying men ever could.

According to Forest Service Helitorch Manager Robert Shoemaker in an interview with the Mail Tribune,

“You can actually steer your fire with a helitorch,” Shoemaker says. “It’s a really good way to burn.”

According to Wired, fueling the drums is a

…”combination of aviation gasoline (which doesn’t evaporate as quickly as standard gas) and a gelling agent (CAL FIRE uses something called Flash 21), lt on fire, and shot out of a giant contraption hanging a few dozen feet below a helicopter.”

Check out a handful of Heli-Torches in action on Youtube below.

Are California firefighters using heli-torches?

It’s not clear from this Instagram POV post if this is from an actual Cal Fire helicopter fighting 2020’s historic fire season. Cal Fire has used the heli-torch in the past to contain fires.

In 2015 SF CBS Local reported how Cal Fire deployed their Heli-torch over the growing 60,000 acre Rocky Fire to great effect.



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