Aerial Firefighting Thrives in Brazil with the Help of Agricultural Aviation

This article was originally published in the print version of AerialFire Magazine’s January/February issue.

Story by Lucas Zanoni

2020 was characterized by the rise of agricultural aircraft as an indispensable tool for environmental protection in the country.

Another season of fires in Brazil is about to begin. Last season, the country faced some of the same dilemmas as years past: a lot of misinformation about agricultural aviation contrasted with a great deal of dedication from the agricultural aviation industry to preserve the country’s natural wealth. Dozens of Brazilian agricultural aircraft have flown in recent months to fight fires across the country, predominantly in the southeast, midwest, and Bahia state regions. 


Despite the environmental challenges that the world has been facing, Brazil still has to do a better job coordinating aerial firefighting efforts. 2020 was a year of considerable success for the agricultural aviation industry transitioning into providing aerial firefighting support.

History of Aerial Firefighting in Brazil


Aerial firefighting has been a function of Brazilian agricultural aviation since 1969, but the last decade represented a significant industry change. 


With the arrival of larger aircraft to the Brazilian fleet, and more significant organization in both the public and agricultural sectors, aviation has come to represent an essential tool for preserving forests and the control of fires in fields and crops. Recently, agricultural aviation companies began to make more significant investments across the country, acquiring new technology and training pilots specifically for the aerial firefighting mission.


In 2006, Zanoni Equipamentos developed its first mechanical fire gate for Tucano Aviação Agrícola, one of the first companies to work in Brazilian aerial firefighting. Located in Primavera’s city do Leste (Mato Grosso), Tucano works in partnership with several other companies in the Previncêndio firefighting project in Minas Gerais. 


A few years later, Tangará Aeroagrícola pioneered a project in São Paulo. The company acquired an Air Tractor AT-502 for aerial firefighting and quickly sought training with Chilean aerial firefighting pilots who had a great deal more experience in the aerial firefighting arena.


Since 2013, Minas Gerais has hired agricultural aircraft to fight fires, hiring Pachu and Imagem agricultural aviation companies to complete these contracts. In addition to public administration deals, the cellulose and sugar cane producers in São Paulo also set up fire brigades and also hired agricultural aviation companies for aerial firefighting contracts. 


The agricultural industry started this service as a way to protect its crops and to maintain legal mandatory forest reserves (Brazilian farmers are obliged to allocate at least 20% of their private property for forest preservation, and, in some regions of the country, this legal obligation can reach up to 80% of the farm). Brazil’s midwestern states have also stood out in aerial firefighting, as they have a large part of the agricultural fleet in Brazil. This has provided continuous assistance in regions such as the Pantanal wetlands, Chapada dos Guimarães National Park, Savannas and the Amazon. 

In 2015, after testing with an Air Tractor from Rondon Aviação Agrícola (based in the city of Tangará da Serra), Zanoni Equipamentos launched the first electro-hydraulic fire gate manufactured in Brazil, which has been installed by Serrana Aviação Agrícola. The two companies have become well-known in the region, being instrumental in firefighting operations in recent years. 


The Federal District has, just as in previous fire seasons, hired aircraft and later acquired some of them. The same happened in Mato Grosso. In addition to government contracts and the acquisition of a public fleet, large agricultural producer groups have also started to assemble firefighting brigades. This is also the case for Brazilian company Bom Futuro, which equipped several Air Tractors this year to protect their crops and forest reserves. 


According to data from the SINDAG, a Brazilian organization similar to the United States’ National Agricultural Aviation Association:


In 2019, agricultural aviation companies flew at least 350 hours fighting fires throughout Brazil – in the Amazon and natural forest reserves and crops in the Midwest and Southeast of Brazil. There were more than 1.8 thousand salvos of water made to control fires.” 


Pilot Gustavo Borges started aerial firefighting about four years ago, having carried out a few small and medium-sized missions in the Ivinhema region (in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul). After joining the Serrana team, he started to participate in operations with aircraft specifically equipped for aerial firefighting. Last year, he participated in missions in Chapada dos Guimarães National Park and in the Amazon forest (near the city of Porto Velho), which were featured in the 2019 October editions of AgAir Update and AerialFire magazines. 


The following month, Serrana closed a fifteen-day contract in Paraguay. In 2020, Gustavo participated in a task force in the Pantanal wetlands, which involved several companies from throughout Brazil and is still actively containing fires there. 


“In Chapada, it was a fire that was around the national park. It was a small outbreak. There were several outbreaks in the Amazon, not necessarily in the Amazon, but in areas close to it. In Paraguay, the fire was different: 10, 15, 20 kilometers of fire lines, there it was savannas  [or Chaco, as Paraguayans call it]. Eight months without rain, it was very dry, and the vegetation was about two to three meters tall, a lot of dry material, pure fuel.” Borges said.


“We arrived with two Air Tractor AT-502s on the first day, and they only had one truck with five thousand liters of water to service them. With the experience we had at the time, we suggested doing some firebreaks, but there was a great deal of resistance from NGOs to use this technique. So the fires only went out when the rains came. I then worked on a farm near Corumbá city, where we also had a fire that was difficult to control. Now we are in the Pantanal, where agricultural aircraft have been working to contain the fires for several weeks,” he continued.

Borges also highlighted the value of working in partnership with the brigade members, stressing that the flying can be innocuous without their help. The general impression is that firefighting with agricultural aircraft has advanced and become popular in the country. 


However, he points out that there are still areas where Brazil can considerably improve, such as the regulation and permission of the use of retardants and the greater use of satellites for fire outbreak mapping – two crucial technologies for the success of aerial firefighting. 


Another company providing aerial firefighting services in 2020 was Pachu Aviação Agrícola. The company, led by pilot and SINDAG director Marcelo (China) Amaral, promoted the first Brazilian Training Course for agricultural pilots in aerial firefighting. 


With twelve agricultural pilots’ participating, theoretical classes and practical flight training took place in July 2020. Each pilot had to make at least four salvos to a target representing a fire point, along with communication training, circuit, approach, attack, and return. 


The classes were held in the city of Olímpia (São Paulo) at Pachu’s headquarters. The missions were flown in tandem instruction in an Air Tractor AT-504 with a capacity of 500 gallons of water, equipped with a Zanoni fire gate.


The course was so successful that it is now being planned for May of 2021. The course will coincide with the First International Conference of Professionals in Fire Fighting held in Brazil. 


The training provided is not just recommended for pilots, Borges stated. It should also be made available to all personnel who manage firefighting activities, such as coordinators and the ground fire brigade. These key individuals need to receive training and qualify for integrated work between all teams so that the goal of extinguishing fires can be achieved in less time with fewer resources. 


In addition to initiating training for Brazilian pilots, Pachu was very successful containing fires in the Pantanal wetlands, a crisis scenario that has gained prominence in national and international media. Since August, the company has been part of the task force in the region. Pilot Fernando Petrelli from Pachu reports the main challenges faced in 2020:

“In general, based on our experience not only in the Pantanal but also in other regions, I think there is a lack of communication and logistics structure. With more monitoring, we would be able to attack outbreaks sooner. When fires reach a certain level, they become more challenging to control. I believe the work has been instrumental, but when fires reach a certain level, they get more complicated.


My impression is the trend to use agricultural aircraft more. The private agricultural industry is beginning to use it in Brazil, something that has not happened before. If there were more investments and government resources, we would undoubtedly have better logistics, more aircraft, and we could have a more preventive fight; thus, we would be more effective. I believe the industry needs to become a little more professional to enter into a standard so everyone understands and speaks the same aerial firefighting language. I have seen where many people are firefighting without a standard; each one is doing the way they want. We need more professionalism, a line for everyone to follow. Regardless of the company that is hired, everyone does the same quality of work and guarantees the effectiveness of agricultural aircraft in firefighting, proving that it works.”


Imagem Aviação Agrícola


Imagem Aviação Agrícola has been active in aerial firefighting since 2006. The company, located in Monções, São Paulo, started working with the state’s government in some regions designated by the fire department. 


Initially, Imagem installed a Zanoni manual fire gate. But, it later converted to the Zanoni hydraulic gate. The company currently has four Air Tractor AT-502s and one AT-402 for firefighting. Lieutenant-Cel instructed the team. Rodrigo Tadeu de Araújo of the local fire department offers ongoing training for their pilots and technicians. More recently, local agricultural groups and farmers contract most of the company’s services in this area. The managing partner of the company and vice president of SINDAG, Jorge Humberto Morato de Toledo, reports his experience in 2020:


Until last year, we had operated through the government, via the military and state government. Last year, we started to make direct contracts with the private sector, mainly the sugarcane mills we fly for. This year we had many demands. All of them were in the private sector. We operate here for an agricultural group which we provide other services. They have units in many cities. 


We also operated in the Mantiqueira Mountains, along with other agricultural aviation companies. The initiative with the private sector brought together local business people who supported aerial firefighting. We also operated in Magda for another agricultural aviation company.

There was a fire in a forest reserve next to São José do Rio Preto, near its headquarters. The fire grew, and the people took too long to call us. This is something that needs to change; the activation time. 


People take too long to call the aircraft. When we got there, the fire was already out of control. The fire took on a substantial dimension and was coming close to houses. It came very close to a luxury condominium called Quinta do Golfe. We managed to contain the fire on the border of its wall, operating well within the city.”


Toledo pointed out that he sees aerial firefighting’s advancement in Brazil with optimism as an excellent opportunity for agricultural aviation and environmental preservation. This work, according to him, is gaining visibility. More people are aware of their work, including discussions at the federal level for a national firefighting plan with the agricultural aviation industry’s inclusion. Aircraft have proved to be an excellent option for this job since the fire season is concomitant when there is not much demand for aerial spraying. Finally, he highlighted the need for more effective training in the country:


“What is also lacking today is training, especially for the ground team. People think calling an airplane will solve the problem alone; that does not happen. We need training for pilots and personnel who assist in the fight, for the coordination personnel, and for the ground fire brigade, who are also very important. Without training, we run the risk of poor effectiveness and create the impression that agricultural aircraft do not work to fight fires.


Luiz Henrique, who currently operates an Air Tractor AT-502 aircraft, was part of western Bahia’s firefighting effort. Luiz reported part of his experience and highlighted the importance of coordination with other teams:


It is an honor to know that agricultural aviation can help our country, especially during fire seasons. In 2015, we fought in the Chapada Diamantina National Park with ground firefighters, who did an incredible job on the ground. A real war operation was set up, with Air Force planes, army aid, and helicopters. Another incredible experience was in Minas Gerais’s state in 2019 amid the high hills of the region. The operation was more complex because the ground crew could not reach the fires and aircraft had to operate alone, but it was still very efficient.

Firefighting Technology Development


This year was hectic for Zanoni Equipamentos in the area of developing and providing aerial firefighting equipment. The company equipped more than 30 aircraft in 2020, surpassing the mark of one hundred fire gates installed throughout South America. In addition to expanding the production capacity to meet this new demand from the Brazilian fleet, Zanoni started new projects in this equipment line. 


New models of gates have been manufactured and are being tested, as well as new technologies are being developed to improve the Zanoni gates that are already in operation. Sérgio Zanoni, CEO and founder of the company highlights the importance of research and development in the area:


We are delighted to be contributing to the evolution of firefighting in Brazil. We developed the technology in the country a few years ago, and we are constantly improving it to meet the specific needs of the Brazilian and South American fleet. Our philosophy has always been to understand what pilots need and to serve them. It was so with the manual gate, and it has also been so with the hydraulic gate. Our equipment is ideal for firefighting in fields since, with its installation, it is not necessary to make any changes to the aircraft’s spray system. In this way, the same aircraft carrying out the spray/dispersion work over crops can help in fighting fires. In Brazil, a fleet exclusively dedicated to fighting fires is still minimal. In addition, the Zanoni fire gate is ideal for using retardants. The pilot can control the amount of liquid dropped over the target accurately. Both the hydraulic system and the controlled opening arose because of orders from our customers and our other innovations that are currently under development and testing. Hence, this is the importance of always maintaining direct contact between manufacturers and pilots“. 

Legislative bill includes agricultural aviation in Brazilian firefighting.


September, Senator Carlos Fávaro presented Bill #4.629/2020 to include agricultural aviation in the governmental guidelines and policies for fighting forest fires. The proposal, which amends the Brazilian Forest Code and the legislation that regulates the use of agricultural aircraft in the country, intends to include agricultural aviation in the contingency plans for combating forest fires and also in the National Policy for the Management, Fire Control, Prevention and Fight Against Forest Fires. The project determines that the public agencies’ contingency plans associated with the National Environment System (Sisnama) will contain guidelines for the use of agricultural aircraft and may represent an advance in professionalism and direct more resources to aerial firefighting. Highlights of the bill:


The drought and fire season coincides with the agricultural off-season in most of the national territory, a period in which our agricultural aviation fleet, which is the second-largest in the world (with 2,300 aircraft) is idle. These aircraft used in the crop season for pesticide spraying and the dispersion of fertilizers are extremely effective in combating forest fires. They enable the dumping of water and fire retardants with agility, precision, and safety at a low cost compared to the government’s acquisition of aircraft. With the use of ag-aviation, instead of buying aircraft, hiring pilots, and bearing the entire cost of facilities, maintenance, training, and personnel (the structure that would be idle for eight months), the government would outsource shifts and hours flown only in the months of drought and fires. This would be implemented as part of a system, which would work with teams of brigade members on the ground and also with a structure for rapid detection of fire outbreaks, capable of generating a huge leap in quality and effectiveness in the actions to fight fires in Brazil.” The bill was approved by the Senate and is now under consideration by the House of Representatives.


Amid so many discussions about the relationship between Brazilian agribusiness and the environment that we had during the year 2020, agricultural aviation in fighting fires is no longer only an opportunity but has become a reality in Brazil. There is still a long way to go that requires a lot of work, investments, training, and greater coordination. In any case, the agricultural aviation industry is already posing itself as a strategic tool for preserving Brazil’s natural heritage, helping the country have one of the most sustainable agricultural productions in the world.

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