Integrating air and ground operations for prompt initial attack on wildfires

If you were operating as an integrated air-ground team, your air element would be assigned to you before you get to the fire. You start with your own air support.

Rice Ridge Fire in Montana helicopter
A firefighter talks to the pilot of a helicopter as he drops retardant on the Rice Ridge Fire in Montana August 16, 2017. USFS photo by Kari Greer.

Guest Author: Bean Barrett

This is a military viewpoint. I am not a professional firefighter but I would like to think that I may have learned a bit about air operations over my 31 years of flying as a Naval Aviator and a tiny bit by living in the forested front range of Colorado, evacuating for wildfires, and working with our fire protection district and County for the last 8 years.

From the outside looking in on fighting wildfires, it has become apparent to me that those who fight wildland fires might want to take a hard look at a modified organizational concept and operations if available ground personnel are going to be reduced by the COVID virus this fire season.

Stop thinking of air as an independent resource. It isn’t a case of separate but equal.

Why?

If the IA gets done quickly and done well, there will be far less need for extended attack with additional personnel and aircraft on a larger scale.  This Australian study clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of rapid ground and air attack and the advantages offered by air support. It is a great first step in explaining the utility and effectiveness of air support. This study was done when Australia was primarily using SEATS and Helos. If you haven’t read it yet, at least read and think about the implications of page 4. What is required is a US program that finds the fire early and integrates air and ground operations for prompt IA.

FireAviation.com has previously discussed the potential negative impact of the COVID-19 virus on firefighting manpower this fire season and has recommended that the Federal government contract for significant additional exclusive use aircraft. If there aren’t going to be enough firefighters this season, aircraft offer the only option to make up for some of the shortfall in firefighting capability.  If more and better IA is the preferred strategy then EU is preferred to CWN aircraft that get here tomorrow. CWN contracts aren’t going to be much help for IA.

The wildfire firefighting business needs to collectively look at developing an integrated firefighting air-ground team. The Army and the USMC have amassed a lot of knowledge and experience on how to closely integrate and employ aviation with ground forces. Much of it can be found in Joint Chiefs of Staff publication JP 3-09.3 provided you want to wade thru the acronym alphabet soup and military doctrine. The military experience shows that effectively integrated air support greatly increases the effectiveness of both air and ground forces.

What kind of aircraft?

There is a big difference between the potential of integrated fire fighting operations and the simultaneous fire fighting operations practiced today. Integrated operations offer the most synergy between air and ground units because the ground and air elements work directly on the same immediate tactical objective in time and space. Integrated aircraft directly support a ground crew or module’s tactical objectives. Simultaneous operations are synchronized in time but pursue a larger overall objective in the fireground. I realize the terms “integrated” and “simultaneous” aren’t normally used in the firefighting vocabulary but they represent the concept I suggest the community needs to consider with respect to aviation utilization.

Firefighting tanker aircraft do not have the advantage of precision-guided munitions or computer aiming systems. The retardant or water payload is free fall and accuracy is subject to the vagaries of visibility, release parameters, and winds. Slow and close is better for accuracy. This and the overriding requirement for ground personnel safety is the principle reason that not all aircraft are suitable for direct integrated support.  Only rotary wing aircraft and small fixed wing aircraft operating in direct communications with and in visual contact with ground firefighting units can provide safe drops for what used to be called in the military “danger close” air support.  The accuracy of a fixed wing Type 1 or VLAT and the large area coverage of the payload cannot ensure safe drops in close proximity to ground personnel even with a good smoke mark by a lead plane. Large fixed wing is best utilized for simultaneous support and independent operations as opposed to integrated support.

Helos may be the best all around choice due to their ability to utilize nearby water sources, their potential faster reload-return cycles, high drop accuracy, their multi-mission logistics, transport, visual reconnaissance potential, and on station persistence.

Command and Control

Consider direct control of smaller aviation assets by ground crews and modules. Locate local air control capability with the ground component. The ground controller would coordinate with any airborne commander or supervisor such as an ATGS.  Integrated support aircraft would check in and out using existing procedures but operate directly with and under the control of their ground element. The employment and effectiveness of available rotary wing and small aircraft should prove to be optimized in integrated IA operations. The earlier the relatively smaller aircraft payloads can be employed, the more effective they are going to be. The IC would still be responsible for overall asset assignment and command but if the concept is viable, the IMT will be utilizing more effective combined air-ground units and working with combined units instead of coordinating and directing separate but equal air and ground efforts.

An aviation element can also provide a significant communications relay capability to and for the ground element.

Results?

Since this is a different concept, only those of you that do the job can judge. Based on military experience and the previously mentioned Australian study, I believe combined integrated operations should be a much more effective use of rotary wing and smaller fixed wing aviation assets that might otherwise be underutilized. It should provide better overall results, especially if employed in rapid IA, assuming aircraft operating contracts enable timely availability. EU vs CWN.

Should a strike team have 1 or 2 integrated aircraft?

Would a reduced strength Hotshot crew be as effective if they had direct air tanker support from a Type 1 or 2 helo?

How about a reduced strength hand crew with a type 1 or 2 helo?

Would a wildfire module function more effectively in an IA with drops, reconnaissance, and extended comm links provided by a dedicated direct support Type 2 or 3 helo?

Should a helitac operation include a dipping capability to support the ground crew? Would their mission capability expand?

I don’t have any answers to these questions but I absolutely know that “you fight like you train” and “you train like you plan” if air and ground don’t plan and train to operate as an integrated team they cannot fight as an integrated team and if more tankers are put under contract this year, the tanker effectiveness and efficiency will not be as optimized as it could be. You can only expect more of the same on a larger scale unless you change how you operate. The only good way to find out if integrated air-ground operations will work is to try it.

For the ground firefighting element: Perhaps some of today’s thinking about aircraft utility in fighting wildfires has been shaped by the number of Unable To Fill’s received when you called for air support? If you were operating as an integrated air-ground team, your air element would be assigned to you before you get to the fire.  You start with your own air support.

If COVID is going to cause a significant shortage of ground firefighters, fight smarter not harder. If you’re an Incident Commander or in the IMT business try asking the US Marines about the Marine Air Ground Task Force [MAGTAF] organizational concepts and how the USMC integrates air into their operations. I can assure you, it isn’t a case of separate but equal.

23 thoughts on “Integrating air and ground operations for prompt initial attack on wildfires”

    1. France has also founded his strategy upon this concept of initial attack and the results demonstrate the efficiency.
      Afterwords the surface to monitor aren’t the same , one country , one strategy

    2. Exactly, in support of the goal to keep 90% of wildland fires to 10 acres or less, aircraft as an integral part of initial attack are essential.

      On California SRA, it’s not that unusual for Air Attack and the accompanying fixed wing and rotors to be the first units on scene. Responding ground resources and those we serve benefit significantly from early communication and coordination.

      It was always comforting to know those resources and the professionals operating them were included on the initial dispatch to fires in or threatening SRA .

    3. Jerome,

      I realize CALFIRE has been “doing it right” but apparently your lessons learned on managing IA’s and the efficacy of prompt direct close air support do not spill over sufficiently into the larger firefighting community. “Hoser” Satrapa was a good friend and before he passed away, we used to discuss CALFIRE firefighting tactics, techniques, and procedures compared to what we learned and taught in the Navy.

      Bean

  1. Personally a big thanks to you for taking the time to write this, I wish I had the same motivation to write that many characters. Perhaps it’s the 2+ decades of air & ground gov firefighting that’s beaten it out of me. I like, and agree with some of your ideas – some not so much. I wish we had a place where experienced, skilled, knowledgable, professionals could interact and share ideas like this without sitting behind this idiot computer screen. I also wish said ideas were then implemented – without fear of political ramifications and or retribution. That “Aerial Firefighting Conference” sure isn’t it. Nor are the “off-season” circus meetings @ BOI. The real ideas/laughs are shared in the hotel bar after long 8.0 hobbs days. I’m already losing motivation to write because it just doesn’t matter. Sadly, they’re going to do what they always do. Nothing will ever change. Most experienced Firefighters who are being honest know this. A quick look at the HIP pool tells the tale. Across the board barely a hint of experience in the civilian commercial utility field – which goes without saying that this work is exclusively. Not saying they all know nothing, but it’s awfully reminiscent of being a new CFI and training brand new students. It’s just not a real high level of aviating, yet they’re the ones doing the carding. I digress. Oh and the EU contracts? It’s WELL documented that the USFS awards the lowest bidder year after year, which obviously promotes a “race to the bottom” if you will. Pay peanuts, get monkeys. Anyway. Thanks again for writing and I hope to see you out there on some godforsaken piece of desert land in BFE someday. I really do. Your heart seems to be in the right place.

    1. After five decades employed by two federal resource agencies (F.S & BLM) one private air tanker contractor and CalFire (now retired) I couldn’t attempt to put it any better. It’s their (Feds) corporate thinking. The Higgins Ridge Fire (1961) is a good example of how things stay the same within the Fed system today. Dump a load of jumpers on a two acre fire that has been heating up for the past eight hours and expect Mother Nature to give you a break. How many Higgins Ridge fires will occur this fire season?

  2. Fantastic concept and it can easily be a reality. Our wildfire resources, both man and machine, are fighting a battle. Employing military tactics only makes sense given how Mother Nature has been wining more than losing over the last two decades. As I’ve mentioned before, proof of this concept is playing out in Washington state. Maybe its time for a “Joint Chiefs of Staff” approach. Could a USMC Commandant’s view on this battle help change the outcomes, regardless of a Covid-19 year or not? Could the Chief of the Forest Service benefit from input from these battle tested minds?

  3. This is a conversation well worth having, but there are many existing operational concepts currently in play that you describe as a ” a different concept”. First off, the organizational model, Tactics and Strategy for our Wildland Fire Organization is taken directly from the Military Model. Large Fire Organization (LFO) and ICS are right out of the Military “Playbooks”. All types of tactical aircraft are routinely passed off to tactical ground resources and the accuracy of drops is generally very good, of course depending on pilot skills and experience. This applies to small rotary wing up to VLATs. Also, this is the second time in the last couple of months that I’ve heard that “CWN aircraft aren’t going to be much help for IA”. I’d just ask that you give that one a little more thought.

    1. Ron,

      My thinking, FWIW.

      It seems to me for a CWN contract aircraft to be useful on an IA which requires getting the most fire fighting capability to the fire right now, that someone would have to have activated the CWN contract the day before its needed so the aircraft can respond within 30 minutes or so of today’s air support requirement. Additionally, the request would have to beat out any competing requests in order to be able to count on support. As a first principle, air support has to be dependable, it has to be there when you deploy a ground crew. Can CWN contract aircraft dependably respond within 30 minutes of a call?

      If things aren’t going so well today and you need more help tomorrow, CWN is a very useful concept. If what you are looking for is the military equivalent of an “alert 30” response, it seems to me that an EU contract fits the bill much better. If you want to pre-assign aviation assets to ground units, I don’t think a CWN contract will work very well at all.

      Bean

  4. This particular concept of IA used to work more effectively when there were more Helitack crews, and when those crews actually got out and fought fire in support of water drops. Some still do. This resource would help tremendously this year. The BLM used to have aviation task forces, with helitack, SEATS and an Air Attack assigned. This would be a big benefit also. Sending a helicopter to assist smokejumpers right off the bat is another idea. Yes, bringing on CWN helicopters to augment the EU would help. Some areas have restricted mediums on contract just to support ground resources. But, you’ve got to send the air resources early, knowing that you’ll likely have more cancel and returns than actual assignments.
    My 2 cents? Bring back the Helishots!

      1. The ones that go straight to a helibase or dipsite. There are more than you’d think. I don’t get it. I also think that some are dispatched so late that they don’t think they’ll be effective on the ground when the fire is 200 acres. We didn’t care, we’d get out and do what we could.

        1. If you are witnessing Helitack crews not engaging in Initial Attack it’s a fire management officer & incident commander leadership issue. Are you suggesting helitack crews choose if they want to IA a fire or not?

  5. Bean,

    Most of what you describe exists and is utilized. The cause of unsuccessful IA operations is a numbers game; the existing lack of aircraft and ground forces to do the job doesn’t exist. Rearranging or reinventing the current fire fighting composition of aircraft and crews won’t work until their numbers increase.

    1. Steve,

      “the existing lack of aircraft and ground forces to do the job doesn’t exist”

      So we have enough firefighters and aircraft?
      Present tactics, techniques, and procedures are good enough?

      1. …should have read, “the existing number of aircraft, engines, and ground personnel is not enough to do the job”.

        1. Steve,
          Absolutely agree. Since the potential impact of the CORONA virus is to further reduce available ground personnel, my suggestion is that proper use of more aircraft [preferably rotary wing] and a focus on modified IA may compensate for the impact of reduced ground personnel. It is possible to buy more aircraft. With a shortage in personnel caused by a pandemic, buying additional trained handcrews is not an option.

          How do we retain or improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the firefighters we do have?

          1. Your suggestion for more aircraft is valid as long as it’s a considerable number, something akin to 5 or 6 times the current numbers…to see that to fruition will take much longer than the pandemic will last, so I don’t think the idea of a modified IA will work…this season.

            How do we retain or improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the firefighters we do have? Isolate them now at secure locations, similar to what some military units are doing to guarantee continuity of operations.

  6. Here is a drill that might be of interest. Zones of influence for LAT and VLAT on EU. Draw a response circle based on a ten minute load the airtanker with retardant, a five minute wheels up en route to the fire, with an average cruise speed of 380 m.p.h.. How far from the tanker base will the tanker be within thirty minutes after the resource order is received at the base? Or in other words 190 miles (use 200 statue miles) air miles from the base. Look at current bases and draw the circle using 190 miles for initial attack within thirty minutes. Now factor in the request for an air tanker (s) through who know who and the initial attack in thirty minutes doesn’t exist any more.

    1. John,

      Here’s another thought experiment. Assume you can get 3 or 4 type 2 helos for the same daily rate as a single Type 1 or VLAT. The helos are going to operate from more widely dispersed locations and drop cheap water [compared to retardant costs] from a reasonably nearby water source. Can you now field at least a modest 30 minute response IA capability to directly support the ground effort?

  7. If you scroll down to a previous post on this page, Senate Committee Chair, you will see a DC 10 making a
    drop on a fire. If you look to the right in the burn you will see a pink profile of a SEAT drop. Helicopters and fixed wing MUST work in conjunction to accomplish successful initial attack. This is the “formula” that Cal Fire uses, of course, with ground resources. Several decades ago I was on a Federal air tanker base where the policy was an automatic hold for one hour on a new breaking fire. After one hour of (not 59 minutes) of waiting we were dispatched. Many of these fire were within fifty air miles of the base. The reason, checking with the Big Brain in Boise to see if the tanker was needed elsewhere, higher priority. Don’t try to figure this out, its their system. Hopefully that this has changed or is changing.

    1. John,

      I’m not saying it’s an either or as far as the tanker mix goes. Gotta have both because big payloads are needed for big fires. but if the objective is stopping 5 acre fires that are likely to grow to larger fires in marginally accessible areas, having a mix that includes more smaller direct support tankers would offer a good IA option while the pandemic reduced strength ground crew gets to the fire. Dispatch is unlikely to dither about a type 2 helo when compared to a Type 1 fixed wing or a VLAT.

      This example isn’t a helo but it makes part of the point https://fireaviation.com/2015/07/24/boxing-in-a-fire/?hilite=%27bridge%27%2C%27fire%27

      Didn’t need a VLAT, don’t know if a direct support helo would have helped after the ground crew reached the fire.

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