Helicopter joins fight to douse forest blaze

Thimphu suffered three forest fires alone yesterday

Fire: In its first fire-fighting mission, the government’s helicopter aided fire fighters on the ground to battle and douse a large forest fire that broke out at Sangaygang, yesterday.

The fire, which began just before 12pm and was brought under control by late afternoon, destroyed an estimated 15-20 acres of forest. At least one person was injured after falling off a cliff.

More than 300 people, including personnel of the Royal Bodyguards, army, police, forest department, Desuung, scouts and volunteers battled the blaze for several hours. Some elderly people also joined in the fight by supplying bottled water to the firefighters.

The fire is suspected to have been caused by a discarded cigarette butt as it originated from a popular dating spot. According to some eyewitnesses, a couple had been smoking in the area.

A volunteer extinguishes embers

A volunteer extinguishes embers

This was the fourth fire at Sangaygang this winter. An official of the forest department said that the reasons for the earlier fires are suspected to be cigarettes and bon fires started by dating couples as well.

Earlier in the day, another forest fire near the Dechenphodrang lhakhang was brought under control just as the one in Sangaygang broke out. Around 3pm, another forest fire occurred in Taba but was successfully controlled as well.

The sight of the helicopter battling the fire at Sangaygang brought many Thimphu residents to a standstill, providing a spectacle for almost two hours.

The helicopter made several sorties over the fire to drop more than 700 litres of water each time. It then flew down to the Thimchhu to refill its 1,000 litre capacity bag called a “bambi bucket”. Each trip took between three-five minutes.

It was apparent to observers that the helicopter drops was aiding the effort on the ground. After almost two hours of drops, the pilot of the helicopter who had attacked the fire from various angles was informed that the fire was under control and he returned to Paro.

A senior police official who was fighting the fire said that the helicopter had been very helpful. The official said that thick smoke had been hindering fire-fighters by limiting their visibility and planning, but that the helicopter was able to avoid this limitation and drop water where needed.

 

A woman carried a plastic jerry can of water up to the fire front to share with fire-fighters

A woman carried a plastic jerry can of water up to the fire front to share with fire-fighters

The official said that while the quantity of water being dropped may have been “less”, it was a surprise to see the helicopter return several times and in a matter of minutes.

The official added that fighting forest fires is a very difficult task and that the helicopter will prove useful in not only dumping water but also serving as a guide.

Gasa MP, Sangay Khandu, who is also a Desuup and was fighting the fire, said that the chopper had shown up at a time when the fire was spreading in all directions. He said it had been particularly helpful in stopping the fire on the south side towards the BBS tower and that it had also aided in controlling it on the north side, towards Choekhortse lhakhang.

The joint ground and air effort saved the lhakhang and some houses from the fire.

Lessons

A few areas were identified as needing addressing for future fire-fighting missions.

The helicopter’s pilot, captain David Peel, said that while the Thimchhu serves as a very good source for water, there are many unmarked wires strung across the river posing a safety risk.

Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services (RBHS) CEO, Chhewang Gyeltshen said that the concerned agencies must consider marking these wires with visibility marker balls so that pilots can see them.

David Peel added that the garbage dumped on the riverbanks also posed another risk as the helicopter’s down-draft sent them airborne, increasing the chances of damage to the aircraft’s rotors.

But the captain said the most danger was posed by the public getting too close to watch the helicopter while refilling its bucket in the river. He pointed out that in some areas the helicopter’s rotors were at the same level as public spectators and that his assistant beside him had to signal to them to stay away. As a result, he frequently changed refilling locations to avoid the crowds.

Captain David Peel, who has fought other forest fires from the air, said he has suggested that a direct link between the helicopter pilot and a focal person on the ground be established for future missions. He said that based on his experience the next step is to purchase radios for ground personnel for this purpose. For yesterday’s mission, communications was routed via ATC at Paro airport.

Another challenge was fuel. Chhewang Gyeltshen said that given the short distance between Thimphu and Paro, enough fuel was transported by road to Thimphu. The helicopter was in the air for an hour and 46 minutes and required to be refueled once. He said that if responding to forest fires in other dzongkhags, refueling would be a problem. The company has placed 800 and 600 litres in barrels in Bumthang and Gelephu respectively as a temporary solution.

As a longer term solution, the company with other concerned organizations has proposed that a fuel bowser or tank be stationed at each of the domestic airports. The Bhutan Oil Corporation is studying the business feasibility of the proposal.

As most of the company’s flights originate or end in Thimphu, relocating RBHS to the capital city is also being explored, he said. If RBHS is relocated, a fuel bowser will be purchased for Thimphu.

On addressing the risk posed by people getting too close to the helicopter, Chhewang Gyeltshen said the only solution is to educate the public. He said that recently a group of teachers and dzongkhag disaster management focal persons had been made aware of the safety and security aspect of helicopters.

He added that the issue will also be addressed through a documentary being produced by BBS.

Gyalsten K Dorji

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