But agrees that the helicopter still has a role to play in battling fires 

Fire: The government has spent Nu 1.2 million using its helicopter to fight forest fires this winter.

However, views have emerged that the helicopter is not effective in a direct fire fighting role given the size of its water container, and that it would play a more significant role in aerial observation and logistical support instead.

The helicopter was involved in fighting the Sangaygang fire on February 12 and the Samarzingkha on the following day. On February 15, the helicopter attempted to douse another fire that broke out at Chuzom but was rendered ineffective given conditions in the area.

On February 16, it battled its last fire for the month in Haa and was credited for playing a major role in its suppression.

When it comes to the Chuzom fire, the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Service (RBHS) is in agreement that the helicopter was ineffective. RBHS CEO Chhewang Gyeltshen said that ultimately the safety of the helicopter’s operators is the number one priority. “The helicopter was not effective because of the location,” he added.

The narrow valley at Chuzom meant that there were not many suitable places for the helicopter to refill its water bucket. The nearest refill area was located too far from the fire.

Unmarked electric lines that crisscrossed the valley also hindered operations. Finally, strong winds of between 60-70 knots or 111-130km/hour in the area posed a major challenge. “So considering all these factors the operation was not very safe,” said the CEO, explaining why the helicopter was recalled to Paro airport.

However, in Haa, officials said that the helicopter played a major role in extinguishing the fire that broke out in Samar gewog. As the river was located very close to the fire, the helicopter was able to carry out a total of 36 sorties dropping a total of 25,200 litres in a short span of time.

Haa dzongdag Kinzang said that without the helicopter the fire would not have been contained. He said that the helicopter had arrived when the fire had reached a cliff and was inaccessible to firefighters on the ground. He added that if the fire had not been contained by the helicopter, it could have spread to any of the three villages surrounding it.

The dzongdag pointed out that the helicopter had been timely and very effective. “I’m quite impressed,” he said.

But while the river had also been located close to the two fires in Thimphu, especially the Samarzingkha fire, views differ.

While some have pointed out that the water drops aided in controlling the forest fires, there are also those who had been fighting the fire on the ground who say that the helicopter’s water drops had not been effective.

Those who did not think so attributed this to the small size of the water bucket. While the bucket has a capacity of 1,000 litres, the helicopter was dropping around 800 litres each time.

In an earlier interview, it was pointed out that this is the maximum amount of water that can be carried efficiently at this altitude by the Airbus H130.

Firefighters said the height of the drops, the speed at which the water was being dropped, and strong winds, were also factors that prevented the water from making an impact on the ground.

Firefighters also said that eventually it took ground personnel to control and completely extinguish the fires and that the helicopter had a negligible impact.

It was also pointed out that the fire in Samarzingkha was controlled because of a newly constructed road on the hill, in the fire’s path. It can be observed that the Samarzingkha fire stops at the road.

The helicopter has not been called to fight a forest fire since Haa fire.

While views about the helicopter’s effectiveness in fighting the fire directly remain divided, firefighters are in consensus that the helicopter still has a role.

Firefighters said the helicopter could provide aerial observation as thick smoke and the terrain hamper understanding of the fire. By having eyes in the sky, the effort on the ground can be directed and firefighters mobilized in the correct areas.

It was also pointed out that the helicopter could help transport firefighters, equipment, and other supplies during a fire, especially one as large as the Chuzom fire. The fire which was extinguished only after 11 days, took firefighters as long as three hours to reach it on foot from the nearest motor road.

It was also acknowledged that the helicopter would be vital if and when injuries are sustained, and casualties have to be evacuated for medical treatment.

What emerges from the views is that the helicopter’s role in fighting fires will need to be flexible and determined by factors such as weather and water availability, among others. The differing views also reveal that better coordination with ground personnel is also required.

Chhewang Gyeltshen said that RBHS will coordinate with the Department of Disaster Management (DDM) so that when called to fight forest fires, the company will also be informed if the helicopter’s role would be logistical support or fighting the fire directly. “We’re not an expert in this field,” he said, adding that guidance will continue to be required from relevant agencies.

“We’ve identified some of the drawbacks, we’re looking into them, and once the DDM has their own SOPs (standard operating procedures), I’m sure all these issues will be taken care of,” Chhewang Gyeltshen said.

Meanwhile, a forest fire that broke out at Genekha in Thimphu yesterday was controlled.

Gyalsten K Dorji