Louisiana, like other Southern states, relies on outside airborne help to fight wildfires

By: - September 7, 2023 9:00 am
An image of a wildfire in Beauregard Parish from drone video shows burning trees

An image of a wildfire in Beauregard Parish from drone video taken Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. (Louisiana State Police)

Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said last week he will ask the legislature for money to buy more firefighting equipment, including a tanker airplane that can drop water on blazes from above. Such an asset would make Louisiana unique among its Southern neighbors and comparably sized states, which rely entirely on outside help for their airborne assistance.

The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) has a staff of 151 firefighters, who’ve been joined by some administrators to augment local departments, mostly rural volunteers, on the front lines of recent blazes. While these crews led the attack on the ground, military helicopters were called upon to suppress fires.    

The Louisiana National Guard has piloted nine of its Blackhawk helicopters to fight fires in the southwest part of the state, and larger Chinook helicopters have been brought in from Oklahoma and Alabama National Guard units, said Lt. Col. Noel Collins, Louisiana National Guard public affairs officer. The “Bambi buckets” used to carry and drop water also belong to the Guard, she added.

The helicopters, with help from LDAF spotter aircraft, have helped firefighters on the ground contain blazes in Beauregard Parish, where the Tiger Island fire has consumed more than 30,000 acres. State officials have placed the damage from fires statewide at about 55,000 acres, or about 93 square miles – or less than 1% of Louisiana’s 23,440 square miles of forest.

Forests cover a comparable share of Missouri, yet the state has only two planes and one helicopter for “scouting purposes,” said Lucas Bond, communications manager for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Neither is equipped for fire suppression, he added. 

Just to the north, Arkansas has 10 single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft, mostly Cessna 182s, for aerial fire detection and surveillance. The two Aero Commander 500s in its fleet are used as air attack platforms, which direct air tankers that are contracted through private vendors, said Ayden Massey with the Arkansas Department of Agriculture. 

The Mississippi Forestry Commission has three Cessnas — one 10-seater and two four-seaters — that track forest fires, pine beetle damage and storm damage, spokesperson Shannon Coker said. Its actual firefighting assets consist of on-ground equipment and personnel.  

Forests cover 71% of Alabama, the fifth-largest portion of any state, yet its state Forestry Commission has just two Cessna 182 airplanes daily that split the state in half to patrol for wildfires and pine beetles. Spokesperson Elishia Ballentine said the state has used contracted pilots in the past but currently has two on staff.

“When we need assistance with wildfire suppression, we have access to helicopters with ‘Bambi buckets’ through partnerships with the National Guard or the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency,” Ballentine said.

When he first took over the department in January 2008, Strain inherited a fleet of 24 planes, including 18 Cessna single-engine 182T aircraft, from his predecessor, Bob Odom. Strain was critical of Odom, who had purchased the Cessnas in 2003, for not keeping public records that detailed the use of the planes, The Times-Picayune reported

In fiscal year 2007-2008, the LDAF’s forestry division had a budget of $20.1 million — nearly identical to its current state funding allocation. The budget bill doesn’t detail how much of that money went to maintaining aircraft and firefighting.

Budget cuts in 2011 forced the agriculture department to lay off four pilots and sell six of its aircraft, from which the LDAF made enough money to retain firefighters on its staff, Strain spokesperson Jenn Finley said.    

Aircraft experts say it’s common for planes to be used 20 years or longer as long as they receive regular upgrades. Though in trade terms, a 20-year-old aircraft is considered “old,” while anything 10 years old or less is designated “new.”  

LDAF’s 12 remaining four-seater Cessnas have continually been upgraded over the past two decades, Finley said. One is currently grounded after sustaining a “very large bird strike” while on fire patrol last month, and another is in Florida undergoing upgrades that are in store for the entire fleet, she added. 

“Our aircraft are primarily used for fire patrol and observance, not only during weekdays, but also including weekends, evenings, and holidays,” Finley said. “There is always a pilot on duty in each of the districts.”

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The LDAF divides the state into eight districts, and its aircraft monitor each area for threats and damage to forestry and other crops, including pine beetle infestations, hurricanes and tornadoes, arson and timber theft. Strain and other state administrators also have access to the planes for state business, and they also assist police with law enforcement and missing persons cases, according to Finley.

The department couldn’t provide the running total for its wildfire expenses to date, but spokesperson Jenn Finley said the state expects federal reimbursements to cover some of the costs. 

The LDAF forestry division was allocated $20.3 million for the current fiscal year that started July 1, which is a $1 million increase from the prior year.  


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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.