Erickson Inc

Organizing for night-flying firefighting operations, U.S. and Australia

What guidelines are in place?

National Night Air Operations
Image from National Night Air Operations presentation, 2018, USFS.

The investigation into the fatal crash of the Single Engine Air Tanker, that occurred in Colorado 1 hour and 49 minutes after sunset on November 16, will include an evaluation of the guidelines that had been established for night-flying operations. Approximately 90 percent of the Kruger Rock Fire was on the Roosevelt National Forest; the rest was on land where the responsibility for suppression was with the Sheriff of Larimer County. The day after the crash the Sheriff’s office said that as of 7 a.m. that day the fire was being managed by a unified command with the US Forest Service and the Sheriff.

Judging from the fire perimeter and the very strong westerly winds it appears likely that the fire started just outside or very close to the National Forest boundary and then spread into the Forest — which is tinted green in the map below.

Map of the Krueger Rock Fire
Map of the Krueger Rock Fire, Nov. 17, 2021. Green indicates National Forest. Fire perimeter created by Colorado’s Multi-Mission aircraft and crew.

After suspending their use of night-flying helicopters at night for about 40 years after a mid-air collision, the US Forest Service restored the program in 2013, making one helicopter available at night. Several other agencies in Southern California have long-standing night-flying programs.

FIRESCOPE is an organization of local fire departments, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and federal fire agencies. In 2018 they published “FIRESCOPE Fire Suppression Night Flying Guidelines”, ICS 800. The 28-page document “provides guidelines for the use of interagency aircraft for both night initial and extended attack operations on emergency incidents to enhance safety, operational effectiveness, and fiscal prudence.”

After operational trials, the state of Victoria in Australia first placed a crew on shift for helicopter night firefighting operations on December 7, 2018. Within two weeks they had two night-flying firebombing helicopters on active contracts (Sikorsky S61N and a Bell 412), each with a supervising  helicopter (Sikorsky S76B and AS355 F2, respectively). An update on their program at the time described some of the procedures and guidelines, including their “crawl, walk, run philosophy” as the project was unfolding.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Cameron.

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4 thoughts on “Organizing for night-flying firefighting operations, U.S. and Australia”

  1. Considering the Aussies rarely, if ever, engage ground personnel at night this is but yet another folly. I’m already tiring of this whole night aerial firefighting frenzy considering we don’t even engage U.S. ground personnel in an offensive manner after dark. This is all a political circus for optics with no realistic, tangible operational payoff and it’s going to continue to kill aviators.

    T130 had a CFIT during the day on the Good Good fire with not a single boot engaged on the fire (a totally dead fire at that). That was another instance where someone 100’s of miles away made the decision to launch with absolutely no purview of what was going in the Snowy Monaro region. It put a mflight crew in a predicament, they launched, and never came home.

    Let’s use FW aerial resources for recon and intel gathering and just knock it off with tactical attempts at firefighting. Ya Basta!!!!!!

    1. In Queensland where I am both a bush fire volunteer and staff member, I can assure we conduct bush fire fighting operations well into the night.

      There is a point at which we stop mainly because rising humidity and falling temperatures dampen most fire behaviour. So yes we are not likely to be out on the foreground much after midnight.

      Other factors such as crew safety, terrain, also come into consideration as well

      I obviously can’t comment on our other States.

  2. The technology for safe application of water/retardant at night is already here. Regardless if your pro or con to night operations is valid, it starts with adapting the proper equipment (training) to conduct after sunset operations safely.
    One thought on aviation is that “if its marginal before you take off, it will only get worst once airborne”

  3. In SE Australia (Victoria at least) crews are routinely on the fire line if its safe to be there. Backburning is often carried out after dark. With regards Night Operations, EMV working with Forest Fire Management Victoria, Country Fire Authority, Fire Rescue Victoria and aircraft operators have developed significant procedures for “Initial Attack after Dark” – but only for helicopters.

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