NWCG: Best practices for fire aviation during COVID-19 pandemic

“Airbases or aircraft may be unstaffed or closed due to COVID-19”

MAFFS C-130 Wyoming National Guard
A MAFFS C-130 from the Wyoming National Guard refills its tank during training at Boise April 21, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Interagency Aviation Preparedness Task Team (IAPTT) has developed recommendations for managing fire aviation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The team is requesting that the National Interagency Aviation Committee (NIAC), which is chartered by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, approve a list of best management practices (BMP).

The IAPTT calls the BMPs “a living document to allow changes as they are needed without confusing the aviation community,” and recommended that it be posted on the NWCG website.”

Here are some excerpts:

  • Ensure implementation of the recommended wildland fire screening protocol by the NWCG’s Emergency Medical Committee (ETA, TBD) for everyone entering the airbase.
  • Contractors and agency personnel need to document daily activities and interactions (location, date, time, and names if possible) daily. This information may be requested if a known exposure has occurred.
  • Contractors and agency personnel shall carry and use disinfecting supplies for protection of aircraft and personnel.
  • Restrict access to the bases and all aircraft to essential personnel only.
  • Keep aircrews separate from other aircrews, contractors and base personnel. Recommend adding temporary facilities and supplies, such as: travel trailers, tents, mobile offices, portable toilets, wash stations, ice chests, etc. to reduce cross contamination.
  • During periods of standby and extended standby, allow flight crews to isolate themselves in quarters and respond from quarters directly to aircraft with minimal person-to-person contact with public and base personnel.
  • For personnel working at the airbase, recommend use of N-95 mask while working in tight spaces to protect against exposure such as the potential for coughing and sneezing.
  • Evaluate MAP start dates to existing conditions to potentially allow vendors to either start the MAP later or to stage/standby at the contractor’s base of operations.
  • Identify home bases for those resources currently without, such as large, very large airtankers, and CWN aircraft.
  • Align aircraft, aircrew, and crew days off.
  • Program managers, contracting officers, and contractors are encouraged to create schedules to minimize or eliminate aircrew rotations, including the need for relief crews.
  • Avoid the use of relief crews. If relief crews are used, CORs, COs and vendors shall develop a travel plan that avoids, as practicable, commercial travel and utilizes driving or chartering aircraft for crew transport to and from the home base or the alternate work location. Work with the contracting officers to identify applicable reimbursement costs and procedures.
  • When proper separation at an airbase cannot be achieved, utilize alternate locations on the airfield or adjacent airports, to stage aircraft that do not require the infrastructure of an airtanker base (e.g. helicopters, light fixed wing etc.).
  • If possible the aircraft and crews should recover nightly at the assigned permanent or temporary home base.
  • Use long term rental or agency vehicles and long term lodging to reduce exposure. Sanitize both lodging and vehicles before, during, and after use.
  • Restrict boosting out of the local area. Evaluate R&R the existing crew in place and/or reducing staffing for the duration of the assignment. [note from Bill: this apparently refers to mobilizing smokejumpers to stage at locations other than their home base]
  • Reduce staffing numbers when approved and applicable such as:
    • Requesting 2 helicopters for each helicopter manager as appropriate (restricted/limited).
    • Expect to utilize and provide pre-approvals for extension of personnel to 21 days.
  • When military aircraft are activated, position them away from existing contractor aircraft, agency personnel and existing agency bases. Consider for MAFFS units to reload only at their activated MAFFS base.
  • Consider that resources ordered out of state may be required to quarantine for 14 days either upon arrival or return from assignment.
  • Staff base with minimal personnel during standby periods allowing the remaining base personnel to work and respond from quarters.
  • Utilize virtual briefings to minimize person to person contact. Utilize conference lines, email, Microsoft Teams or other similar multi-media resources with links to appropriate briefing materials.
  • Aircraft dispatch forms shall be delivered to all resources electronically instead of person-to-person or information can be relayed over the radio.
  • When available utilize additional agency vehicles to transport crews while maintaining social distancing. If agency vehicles are not available acquire long term rental vehicles. Contact local dispatch for assistance on emergency equipment rentals.
  • Minimize transporting passengers as much as possible; clean each aircraft between flights in accordance to FAA direction. https://www.cdc.gov/quarantine/air/managing-sick-travelers/ncov-airlines.html
  • Eliminate the use of shared personal protective equipment (e.g. headsets and flight helmets).
  • Clean personal protective equipment (e.g. headsets and flight helmets) before and after utilization.
  • Due to the dynamic situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, airbase operations at times may not meet policy requirements. In these cases, prior to the deviation, it will be reported to supervisors who in conjunction with aviation managers will analyze the risk and determine if the operation should continue.
  • All cargo being transported via aircraft will be handled by essential personnel only.  Handling of cargo should be accomplished with the minimum personnel as possible and all personnel will handle cargo with proper PPE at all times.
  • All personnel that show any symptoms of illness are to immediately isolate as recommended by CDC/FAA and follow agency, CDC, and state guidelines for notifications, testing and quarantines.
  • Airbases and/or aircraft may be unstaffed or closed due to COVID-19. Do not staff or open a contaminated airbase or aircraft without proper decontamination. Notify controlling dispatch and/or coordination center of status changes.
  • COVID-19 risk mitigation shall not increase or transfer risk to flight crews. Flight crews will determine mission “go, no go” decision based on proper risk mitigation.

The excerpts above comprise only a portion of the four-page document which can be found on the NWCG website.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Mathew. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

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 Wildfiretoday.com.

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.

During a pandemic aircraft may need to be used on wildfires more aggressively

747 air tanker Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A 747 air tanker drops on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

This article was first published on Wildfire Today, March 19, 2020.

Fighting wildland fires as we have known it is likely to go through a transformation during the next 6 to 18 months. As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to reach into more segments of the daily human existence the way we suppress wildfires may have to be modified.

Obstacles to firefighting

At a White House briefing on March 16 the President and Dr. Anthony Fauci said people should not assemble in groups larger than 10 and recommended “Social distancing”–  spacing between individuals needs to be at least 6 feet. Being near any infected person, even if it is just one person, runs the risk that droplets expelled from their mouth or nose, or viruses on their face, hands, or clothing could be transferred to others. Without widespread testing, it is impossible to know if someone is infected without being symptomatic. The symptoms, if they occur at all, may not develop for days.

firefighters Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A hand crew of firefighters on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

Social distancing would be extremely difficult to maintain while traveling to or extinguishing a fire. Wildland firefighters are trained to never work alone, and are always in groups ranging from 2 on a small Type 6 engine, 20 on a hand crew, and hundreds or thousands while assigned to a large fire. On Tuesday multiple engine crews battled three fires that burned 50 acres near Foxton in Jefferson County, Colorado about 20 miles southwest of Denver. On March 6, 286 firefighters responded to a 20-acre fire in the Cleveland National Forest near Lakeland Village in southern California. In 2017 more than 8,500 firefighters were assigned to the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in southern California.


This is not like dealing with climate change that over years and decades has slowly caused fires to grow larger. A rapidly growing pandemic that kills approximately 0.7 to 3.0 percent of those infected means we don’t have the luxury of time to come up with solutions. A new scientific report warns that without action by the government and individuals to slow the spread and suppress new cases, 2.2 million people in the United States could die.

The March 1 outlook for wildland fire potential predicted higher than average fire activity during March and April in the coastal areas of Central and Southern California.


Prevent fires

It is possible that with social isolation the number of human-caused ignitions will decrease. Or, will campfires in the woods increase when folks get cabin fever and have more time on their hands? Fire prevention efforts have to increase, with more public service announcements and prevention officers in the field.

Reduce the number of fires that escape initial attack

The fewer large fires we have that require hundreds or thousands of firefighters to work together, the safer firefighters will be from additional virus exposure. This would also reduce evacuations that can result in refugees assembling in large numbers. An infected person forced to leave their self-quarantine to fend around for housing is a danger to society.

How to keep fires from becoming large

There is no silver bullet that can guarantee a fire will not escape initial attack, but the most effective tactic is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

This means, if there is a report of a fire, don’t just send one unit out to verify unless you have a very good reason to suspect it is a false alarm.  Dispatch overwhelming force — engines, crews, helicopters, and air tankers. This is not inexpensive, but can save millions of dollars if it keeps a fire from growing large.

The need for more firefighting resources

Congress is considering a proposal to spend $1 trillion dollars on a stimulus package to combat the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a proposal obtained by NBC News. A trillion is a number that is nearly impossible for me to comprehend. It is a thousand billion. A billion is a thousand million.

If more firefighters were hired it could make it possible to have healthy forces in reserve when 20-person crews or 5-person engines have to be quarantined when one crew member tests positive for the virus or if they are exposed while fighting a fire. It could also enhance the ability to attack new fires with overwhelming force.

Since firefighters assembling in groups to suppress a fire can put them at risk of spreading COVID-19, we need to rethink our tactics. This could include making far greater use of aerial firefighting. It should become standard operating procedure to have multiple large air tankers and helicopters safely and quickly attacking a new fire from the air, far from any people on the ground infected with the virus.

firefighter Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A firefighter on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 25, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on federal exclusive use (EU) contracts. Last year and at the beginning of this year there are only 13. That is a ridiculous number even in a slow fire season like last year when 20 percent of the requests for large air tankers were unfilled. The number of acres burned in the lower 48 states in 2019 was the least since 2004.

There are so few large airtankers on EU contracts that dispatchers have to guess where fires will erupt and move the aircraft around, like whack-a-mole.

The U.S. Forest Service says they can have “up to” 18 large air tankers on EU contract, but that will only be possible if and when they finally make awards based on the Next-Generation 3.0 exclusive use air tanker solicitation that was first published November 19, 2018. There are an additional 17 large air tankers on call when needed (CWN) contracts that can be activated, but at hourly and daily rates much higher than those on EU.

If multiple large air tankers and helicopters could attack new fires within 20 to 30 minutes we would have fewer large fires.

Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Until that takes place and the aircraft are sitting on ramps at air tanker bases, all 17 of the large air tankers on call when needed contracts need to be activated this summer. Right now, only one large air tanker is working.

Several years ago the number of the largest helicopters on EU contracts, Type 1, were cut from 36 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50. Until that happens 22 CWN Type 1 helicopters should be activated this summer.

“Air tankers don’t put out fires”

We often say, “air tankers don’t put out fires”, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area. During these unprecedented circumstances, we may at times need to rely much more on aerial firefighting than in the past.

All firefighters need to be tested for the virus at regular intervals

If firefighting crews have to isolated and put on the sidelines because one member develops COVID-19 symptoms, it is likely that they had already been shedding the virus for days, possibly infecting others.

firefighters Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
Firefighters on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 27, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

The small town of Vò in northern Italy where the first COVID-19 death occurred in the country, has become a case study that demonstrates how scientists might neutralize the spread of the disease. On March 6 they began a program to test all 3,300 inhabitants of the town twice, including asymptomatic people. Those without symptoms that tested positive were isolated, as were those with symptoms of course, and since then there have been no new cases.

This lesson is being learned. San Miguel County in Colorado, the location of Telluride, will be the first county in the U.S. to test every resident.

If we expect to maintain wildland firefighting capability, every firefighter must be tested on a regular basis. This can greatly reduce the risk when they gather in large numbers to suppress a fire.

Other key members of the wildland firefighting community must also be tested in order to maintain the viability of the system. This would include pilots, aircraft mechanics, air tanker base crews, helitack crews, dispatchers, members of Incident Management Teams, and contractors that supply firefighting equipment and services, especially caterers.

Should we still manage “limited suppression” fires?

In the last 10 years we have seen more wildfires allowed to spread with only limited suppression. These fires can persist for months while they are being baby sat by firefighters. Yes, there are benefits to the natural resources to allow fire to run its natural course. Fewer personnel are used early in the fire, but the amount of time involved results in them being tied up for an extended period. And if a month or two into it, after it has grown large and has to be suppressed, then you will need a huge commitment of forces. If firefighting resources are extremely limited by the effects of the pandemic, the second and third order effects of this strategy need to be thoroughly examined by smart managers before they decide to not aggressively attack a new fire.

Area Command Teams activated

Three Area Command Teams  (ACT) have been activated in the United States to assist in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The delegation of authority directs them to coordinate with Federal, State, local, and Tribal officials to identify issues related to COVID-19 and wildland fire response. They will develop fire response plans for maintaining dispatching, initial attack, and extended attack capability. The ACTs will also develop procedures or protocols for mitigating exposure to COVID-19 during an incident, and for responding in areas with known exposure to COVID-19.

This is an important and necessary step. We are in uncharted territory, and no one has ever fought wildland fires under these conditions, at least in the United States.

Table top exercises or simulations

They may already exist, but if not, table top exercises could be very useful for Regional and National Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups to work through the steps of allocating firefighting resources that in a worst case scenario could become scarce on an unprecedented scale. Maybe a billionaire or video game designer will develop a computer-based simulation for this purpose.

Yes, this is a lot — 40 EU large air tankers, 50 EU Type 1 helicopters, initial attack with overwhelming force, and testing for everyone involved in firefighting.

We need to be in this for the long haul. No one knows for sure, but scientists are thinking that this new virus will ebb and flow. The spread may peak every few weeks and it may or may not slow in the summer, but will most likely peak again in the fall and winter well into 2021. There is no known cure and it will be at least 12 to 18 months before a vaccine is available.

But what is the alternative? If our firefighters are isolated, quarantined, or deceased, there could be a lot of smoke in the skies this year that will exacerbate respiratory diseases being suffered by many.