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.