Battling a wildfire is akin to precision high-speed landscaping. That’s why crews fighting massive fires – maybe also now in California – sometimes have dusted off a somewhat extraordinary piece of equipment: the helitorch. Yes: It’s a flame-spitting helicopter. It is used to fight wildfires by igniting new fires around… And what about when such a controlled fire gets out-of-control? Look at California…
There are more mundane ways to set controlled burns, like a fusee (basically a handheld flare), flare guns (great for lighting a hillside on fire), or a driptorch filled with a mixture of gasoline and diesel that literally pours fire out of a spigot.
But all of these solutions require men on the ground, near the fire. That can be tough in rugged terrain, and requires a ton of manpower to light large areas. That’s why we have the helitorch.
There are a couple different types of helitorch, but they all work largely the same way: combine aviation gasoline (which doesn’t evaporate as quickly as standard gas) and a gelling agent (CAL FIRE uses something called Flash 21), light it on fire, and shoot it out of a giant contraption hanging a few dozen feet below a helicopter.
The gelling agent thickens the fuel, keeping it burning longer and improving its effectiveness as a fire starter — much like napalm. The idea is to start a continuous line of fire over hundreds or thousands of feet, even in rugged and inaccessible terrain. It also ignites the treetops, which is difficult for ground-based operations.
And, like so many things related to wildfires, it looks freaking awesome.