An airtanker drops retardant on the Sedge Fire in the Brunswick Canyon bridge area on the east side of Carson City, Nev., June 6, 2007. (AP Photo/Nevada Appeal, Brad Horn)
The Hollywood film version of wildland/urban interface (WUI) firefighting would most likely portray an airtanker swooping down over an out-of-control forest fire, extinguishing the flames and saving the day—with nothing left to do but celebrate. In reality, that may have happened in a few rare cases, but the fact is that aerial resources are most effective when used in conjunction with ground resources, not instead of them. When you need aerial resources, they can make a big difference, which is why knowing how and when to use them—and being ready to request them—is crucial.
Getting to Know You
Engaging aerial resources when they’re needed can be intimidating for those who don’t do it frequently. To the average firefighter on the ground, their capabilities are unknown, their jargon is unfamiliar, and their deployment seems complicated. However, it is possible to get to a point where you and your department are able to engage these resources with more confidence—and you owe it to your community to get to that point.
The absolute best way to gain familiarity and comfort with aircraft is to establish ongoing relationships with local resources. There are very few fire department dispatch centers that would know how to order aerial resources, even if they were needed, so it’s good to get to know your local interagency dispatch center, if you have one. This will also allow you to become familiar with one another’s capabilities over time.
Additionally, you should become familiar with aircraft that are permanently and seasonally staffed within your area. Like firefighters, aircraft pilots and crews love to show off their toys, so don’t hesitate to approach them. Often, you’ll find that the aircraft crews are similarly uncomfortable in their knowledge level about your capabilities. In short, every interaction with local or staged resources can be used as an opportunity to ensure common communication channels and procedures, should the need arise.
Types of Aircraft
Aircraft are divided into two general categories: fixed-wing and rotor-wing. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Fixed-wing aircraft include varying sizes of airtanker and air tactical planes. Air tactical planes are smaller aircraft from which air space control and observation can be performed. Fixed-wing aircraft also deliver smokejumpers, perform long-distance transport of firefighting equipment and supplies, and can be used to “lead” larger aircraft.
The smallest airtankers are called single-engine air tankers (SEATs), and they can deliver up to 800 gallons of water or retardant; medium- and large-capacity airtankers can carry up to 3,000 gallons. Since 2006, very large airtankers (VLAT) have emerged in Spain, and shortly thereafter in the United States. These platforms include the DC-10, which can deliver 12,000 gallons of water or retardant, and Evergreen’s 747, which can deliver 24,000 gallons. When needed, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) can also engage the military C-130s, which are equipped with modular airborne firefighting systems (MAFFS).
There are four main types of rotor-wing aircraft, or helicopters, as they’re more commonly known; each is based upon size, passenger and water capacity. Helicopters can be used for observation, air tactical purposes, the delivery of equipment and personnel, and the delivery of water or retardant through bucket drops. Type I helicopters are heavy-lift or high-capacity helicopters; those with internal water- or retardant-carrying capabilities are often called “helitankers.”
How They Work
Fixed-wing airtankers are usually used to deliver retardant to help build or fortify firelines. Most fixed-wing aircraft must return to an airport to be filled, although “scooper” planes are capable of skimming the surface of a larger water source to fill up.
Rotor-wing aircraft can drop water or retardant from a bucket or internal tank (usually evidenced by the “snorkel” that extends below the aircraft). They can fill by dipping from natural or human-made dip sites that are in close proximity to a fire.
When using aircraft for air drops, the flight crew will generally be directed to the location of the drop by ground personnel. When guiding resources to a scene, the latitude and longitude, or GPS coordinates, are helpful; however, plain language can also be used to describe suggested locations for retardant drops. Retardant is dyed red so previous drop sites are visible from aircraft as they return to perform subsequent drops.
The Future of the Large Airtanker Program
The future of the large airtanker program in the United States has been called into question in recent years, given the age of the fleet, an array of problems and some tragedies that have occurred when using this type of aircraft for firefighting purposes. This year, the U.S. Air Force determined that there might be excess C27J fixed-wing aircraft which could provide replacements to the USFS fleet. This aircraft, much like its larger and more effective cousin, the C130J, is as near to “purpose built” for wildland fire as any tactical platform in use in the world.
The Wildfire Suppression Aircraft Transfer Act of 2012 sought to provide a mechanism for transferring these aircraft. Tom Harbour, the Director of Fire and Aviation for the USFS, stated that the transfer of these aircraft represents the beginning of the modernization of the federal fleet of aerial resources. However, he stressed that the acquisition of these aircraft would only represent the start of the total modernization strategy. National Association of State Foresters Fire Director Dan Smith agreed, explaining that an overall fleet of nearly 30 aircraft with a higher carrying capacity was desirable. Although the transfer of these aircraft is not yet definite, it is recognized as one way to jumpstart the replacement of the aging fleet. Other options, such as the design of a new purpose-built aircraft or the modification of other aircraft, are being considered, however they will probably prove to be more costly and lead to longer delays.
The issue of safety is one that has often been discussed when considering the use of the large airtanker fleet. One of the most important lessons learned over the years regarding the use of all aerial resources is to maintain safety through situational awareness. Following are other important considerations when working with aircraft:
- Never approach any aircraft without obtaining clearance to do so, and always remain within direct eyesight of a flight crewmember. Rotor-wing aircraft should always be approached from the front or side in a crouched position; if on a hill, approach on the downslope side.
- Always wear hearing and eye protection.
- Keep landing areas clear of all loose articles that might become airborne.
- Be aware of propeller and turbine danger zones on all fixed-wing aircraft.
- If boarding aircraft, wear full PPE and follow all weight and cargo restrictions, as directed by the flight crew.
- If in proximity to air drops, all ground resources should stay completely clear of any drop zones. If a crewmember is caught in a location where a drop is going to occur with no way to evacuate, they should lie down while wearing their helmet, with their head pointed in the direction that the aircraft is coming from, and cast all hand tools an adequate distance away.
Aerial resources are crucial to mitigating large WUI/wildfires, particularly now, when the number of conflagrations is increasing in the United States. When you need these resources, knowing their capabilities and limitations will give you the confidence to engage them efficiently and effectively.
There’s an urban legend among the aerial firefighting community that tells of a SCUBA diver who, years ago, was scooped up by an aircraft and dropped into a fire during an operation. Although there’s no evidence to prove this ever happened, it illustrates the primary lesson learned when using aerial resources: Safety and strong situational awareness are essential when operating near aircraft.
Large Airtankers: A Troubled History
Aircraft were first used for firefighting in the 1950s. The current large airtanker fleet was built up over decades, as retired military planes were acquired and rebuilt for firefighting purposes. But there have been a number of accidents in recent years involving these “legacy” airplanes. A video of Tanker 11 failing during a retardant drop was widely circulated, and justly caused public concern.
After the structural failure of two large airtankers in 2002, a Blue Ribbon Panel was asked to identify weaknesses and fail points in the current aviation program. The primary conclusion was that the safety record of aircraft used in wildland fire management was unacceptable. Additional research on their failures has proven that the damage to the aging fleet is due to fatigue rather than catastrophic stressors. The fleet is showing obvious signs of age; the average aircraft now being close to 50 years old. Although the entire fleet originally totaled almost 50 aircraft, that number has been reduced over the years to just eight functional “legacy” aircraft.
In recognition of the fact that the fleet is decreasing in number, the USFS has worked to build its capacity through agreements with other agencies. The State of California has been key in this capacity building, providing access to its airtankers throughout the fire season. Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott recently stated “interdependence among firefighting agencies is why it is important to be engaged in the Federal Large Air Tanker Strategy from the State’s perspective.” He also added that his agency will continue its commitment to the process until the strategy is fully realized. Similar assistance has come from Alaska and Canada in the past.