Response from a reader about the use of firefighting aircraft during a pandemic

air tanker 103 Thomas Fire drops California
Tanker 103, an MD-87, drops on the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, California December 13, 2017. USFS photo by Kari Greer.

We received the text below in an email from one of our regular readers, Bean, who gave us permission to use it here. He wrote in response to the article, “During a pandemic aircraft may need to be used on wildfires more aggressively”, when it first appeared on

Well done!  In the military we would have classified what you are asking for as a “force multiplier”.

Since your article on the Foxton Fire in JEFFCO, CO the Elk Creek FD Chief shut down our wildfire module. One member of the team came down with a cough, fever, and headache after the first day of the fire. The Chief sent them all home to self isolate for two weeks instead of allowing a possible infection to spread to the rest of the department. So right now the good news is that we just had a heavy snowstorm. The bad news is that we [Elk Creek] have no wildfire module for two weeks. No word on the sick firefighter yet.

I realize you write about fire fighting but another issue causing concern is that most small rural districts, ours included, also run the local EMS and ambulance service and as a result, our firefighter paramedics and EMT’s are even more at risk of exposure to CV.

In the small districts up here we are already short of fire fighters [paid full time and volunteers] and it is the small districts that provide most of the IA capability in Colorado.  If we define IA using your Rx for controlling fire size, we need a maximum effort in minimum time. We need the one resource that is not available … more people. The impact of the CV is to further reduce our most scarce fire fighting resource and if the CV impact is significant, Colorado is in trouble later this year when it warms up and dries out. Air support can increase the effectiveness of our available people.

So that gets us to where your article comes in, if we can’t get more firefighters, we have to fight smarter not harder using our available firefighters.  Enough air support can make a significant impact on the efficiency of our available firefighters and can offset the shortage of firefighters. The only problem is that most of the fixed wing type 1 air resources aren’t really capable of immediate response and providing direct close air support to the ground attack on the fire. I submit that for the maximum effectiveness, in this situation that the air resources required to augment fast IA are probably rotary wing. They can operate closer and drop with higher accuracy in direct support of ground personnel with relative safety compared to Type-1 fixed wing and their reload-return cycle is much quicker especially for dippers. Of course we cannot know this for a fact since the US Forest Service AFUE study has been a year out for several years and evidence is anecdotal except for the excellent Australian study on air tanker effectiveness that underscores the requirement for air support and immediate IA.

CWN contracts are useless for rapid IA support so what seems to be required to offset the impact of CV on personnel availability at least in our neck of the woods is to focus on EU contracts for rotary wing support in significant numbers to provide immediate augmentation of IA personnel and fixed wing Type 1’s to back up the IA effort if indirect attack is required.

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3 thoughts on “Response from a reader about the use of firefighting aircraft during a pandemic”

  1. Another fire season ahead and no forward progress by the Forest Service in attempting to keep small fires (I.A.) small. O’well, fires are good for the economy. As Dr. Gabbert has mention numerous times…..his Rx for success in the first two hours of an evolving threatening fire. There are no “perfect”
    prescriptive use of type and size aircraft on I.A. Depending on the potential of a fire to escape containment, not likely, good chance, mother nature in full control; it is the combined use of both helicopters and retardant or water dropping fixed wing aircraft that will provides the best chance of first burning period containment. Or in other words, do something with something from the air very quickly.

  2. There’s an equal chance you’ll see a couple of engine crews burning out huge chunks of acreage, or aircraft doing point protection. Very few agencies do aggressive IA anymore. Shame, safest, most effective way to go.

  3. I see lots of people posting about aggressive initial attack from aircraft on wildfires, but we also have to come up with a plan if our air tanker pilots, helicopter pilots and engineers become ill and we lose a significant amount of those resources.

    Currently in my jurisdiction they’re coming up with scenarios where we may only have 25% of the people or resources available to us.

    Prioritizing our response to certain wildfires based on values-at-risk maybe become more important than ever given the current situation.

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