Don Arney’s Bambi Bucket, a major contribution to aerial firefighting tech from the 1980s

A flight crew from Multinational Battlegroupe East fills a Bambi Bucket. By Joshua Dobbs/U.S. Army. Public domain.

Helicopters and other aircraft are often used to combat fires which cannot be controlled by personnel on the ground and the practice is a fairly expensive one. Various online sources cite to a 2003 statement from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that those agencies own, contract or lease 1,000 aircraft for aerial firefighting each year at an annual cost of more than $250 million as of 2003. Aircraft can serve multiple purposes in helping to put out large fires by dropping either fire retardant or water to put out the blaze, deliver supplies to ground personnel or provide reconnaissance for large area fires. The state of California, which has dealt with massive wildfires in recent years, has been using aircraft to fight fires since the 1950s when it started using agricultural planes to dump water on fires. In 2016, there was an increase in the percentage of unfulfilled requests for air tankers to fight fires with 13.4 percent of such requests going unfulfilled, but that is down significantly from the nearly half of all such requests going unfulfilled in 2012.

This Monday, October 2nd, is the 33rd anniversary of the issue of a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office covering a technology which continues to play a great role in dousing the flames of major infernos. The inventor, Don Arney, is among the inductees of the National Inventors Hall of Fame’s 2017 class. Arney’s Bambi Bucket proved to be a revolutionary advance to the world of aerial firefighting and it is still a standard piece of firefighting equipment which is widely used throughout the industry.


Don Arney Develops an Inventive Streak at an Early Age

Don Arney. From the National Inventors Hall of Fame website.

Don Arney was born in 1947 in the Canadian city of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. His father’s career in construction work took the Arney family to different locales throughout Vancouver Island. Arney showed an aptitude for innovating from an early age and a profile on Arney published by The Vancouver Sun tells a story about how Arney, at 12 years of age, pitched the president of Canadian aircraft manufacturer Avro Canada on an idea for a blimp/airplane hybrid. He also gained early mechanical experience by working in an auto garage by the age of 16. Arney completed his undergraduate studies at Simon Fraser University, from which he received a bachelor’s in biology.

In 1978, Don founded SEI Industries to serve as the entity through which he would market his inventions. Two years prior to founding SEI, Arney earned his pilot’s license and flying has remained a lifelong pastime of his ever since. Arney’s familiarity with aircraft and his engineering background were critical to the development of the Bambi Bucket. A YouTube video profile of Arney published by the National Inventors Hall of Fame discusses how Arney, working with a former employer, arrived at his idea for the Bambi Bucket while testing industrial-strength underwater airbags which were used for salvaging wreckage. Testing the bags involved submerging them in water and lifting them into the air with cranes to find out their durability. “One day, I was looking at this bag hanging from the crane. 2,200 pounds of water being contained in a 60 pound bag. And I figure, ‘Hmm, aircraft… Now what would I have to do to that to make that into a firefighting bucket,” Arney said in the YouTube video.

Arney set out to develop a valve system which would control the release of water from the bags and his invention of the Bambi Bucket is covered by U.S. Patent No. 4474245, issued on October 2nd, 1984, and titled Collapsible Fire Fighting Bucket. It claims a collapsible fire fighting bucket to be suspended from an aircraft and filled from an open body of water, the bucket having a body made of pliable material having an upper rim, a side wall and a bottom; a tubular extension dump valve made of pliable material and extending from the bottom, the valve being adapted to be withdrawn into the bucket with a discharge port remaining below the bucket’s water; upper rim stiffening means; means for suspending the bucket from the aircraft including a connector and a plurality of first flexible tension links connected between the bucket and the connector; supporting means for releasably supporting the free end of the tubular extension including a second flexible tension links allowing the extension to dump the water; and a resilient lip on the discharge port sealing opposite lip sections to minimize leaking.

The Bambi Bucket Becomes a Life- and Property-Saving Industry Standard

On August 30th, 2011, the New Orleans Fire Department reported that three Louisiana National Guard helicopters made nearly 300 Bambi Bucket drops to combat a blaze which they discovered was close to 50 acres in size; originally, it was estimated to be only 20 acres. This is simply one of many, many fires for which firefighters have made use of the Bambi bucket for aerial firefighting purposes. The Bambi Bucket has been used in more than 110 countries across the world and as of this March, Arney had told The Vancouver Sun that the device had cornered 95 percent of the market for buckets used in helicopter firefighting. The Bambi Bucket has even been used in relief efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in an attempt to cool melting nuclear material.

Dumping water from aircraft to fight fires wasn’t a new idea but there are many reasons why Arney’s Bambi Bucket became an industry standard, displacing nearly all of the conventional technology used for the purpose. Early aerial firefighting buckets included converted 45-gallon drums with a trap door on the bottom. Many materials have been used including fiberglass, plastic and canvas with metal frames but the Bambi Bucket is less cumbersome to transport. The valve invented by Arney enables the bucket to discharge a solid column of water without water forming into a spray, which reduces the effectiveness of other bucket drop solutions. Current versions of the Bambi Bucket also include GPS technology to track water volumes and fuel usage as well as powerfill technology that enables pilots to draw water from shallow sources. There are various Bambi Bucket models which can hold anywhere from 72 gallons up to 2,600 gallons of water.

Arney continues to live on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia and has kept up with his penchant for innovating. According to his personal bio, he volunteers his time flying researchers to remote areas of British Columbia so they can study biology, ecology and the environment. He is also beta testing the HangBoard, a piece of sporting goods equipment intended to create a new type of athletic pursuit going downhill on snow-covered mountains. Awards and recognitions include the 1986 Ernest C. Manning Award, a major Canadian award for innovators; the 2003 BC Export Award, presented by the British Columbian government to SEI Industries; and a citation in the 2005 edition of the BC Almanac Book of Greatest British Columbians.


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