Two air tankers collide near Bishop Fire in Nevada

UPDATED at 10:15 p.m. MDT July 30, 2020

map Bishop Fire
Map showing heat detected by satellites on the Bishop fire as late as 3 a.m. MDT July 30, 2020.

Two air tankers collided July 30 while working on the Bishop Fire in southeast Nevada.

The Air Tractor Single Engine Air Tankers, SEATs, were involved in a mid-air collision Thursday afternoon according to Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Claire Morville. There was one person on board each aircraft.

At 10 p.m. MDT July 30 a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, Chris Hanefeld, confirmed that the collision occurred earlier in the day at about 12:55 p.m. He said both pilots were killed in the crash. Recovery operations are currently underway and initial notifications are still being made.

“We offer our sincere condolences to the families of the two pilots and to all those working with the BLM Nevada Ely District,” said BLM Nevada State Director Jon Raby.

The Bishop fire, reported July 29, has burned 500 acres 14 miles south-southwest of Caliente, Nevada.

The accident occurred near the intersection of Kane Springs Road and Riggs Road, Ms. Morville said.

The fire is on land managed by the BLM. The two privately owned aircraft were under contract to the agency.

SEATs are small airplanes used to support wildland firefighters on the ground. They can deliver up to 800 gallons of fire retardant and operate in areas where larger airtankers cannot.

The names of the pilots have not been released.

Our sincere condolences go out to the pilots’ family, friends, and coworkers.

Bishop Fire
Bishop Fire, from Ella Mountain Lookout July 29, 2020. InciWeb photo.
map Bishop Fire
Bishop Fire map. Data from 7:53 p.m. MDT July 29, 2020. BLM.

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

Tests of night-flying air tankers underway in Oregon

Single Engine Air Tanker contract Wyoming
File photo of an Air Tractor AT-802 Single Engine Air Tanker under contract in Wyoming. N23WT. Photo via Wyoming State Forestry Division June 22, 2020.

Last week the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) began Phase Two of an evaluation of using Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) at night. This phase builds on the training and lessons learned during Phase One which occurred in Grant County in July 2019. ODF’s Aviation Unit has been working with the contractor to develop safety guidelines and procedures for target and firefighter identification for night operations on ODF protected lands. Firefighters from the John Day Unit will again coordinate in the training and evaluation of the operation. There will be increased night traffic at the airport during the week of July 20 as part of the SEAT evaluation activity.

During Phase One the SEAT dropped water on simulated fire targets directed by firefighters on the ground. The SEAT pilot uses night vision goggles to identify the target and all ground resources including fire engines and personnel. Firefighters use verbal cues and hand signals utilizing chem sticks to direct the pilot to target location. During Phase Two firefighters from the John Day Unit  received training focused on safety of the pilot, firefighters, observers and ensuring effective application of the SEAT drop as well as operation of the SEAT Base, located at the Grant County Airport. Single Engine Air Tankers are capable of dropping 700 gallons of water, fire retardant, or fire suppressing gel. These drops are intended to slow the spread of the fire and allow firefighters and equipment to build fireline to control and contain the fire. Water will be used during the initial evaluation activities.

Following initial training of ground personnel last week, evaluation of night SEAT proficiency began July 21. The operation is evaluated on safety procedures, effectiveness of the drops, and communication. ODF’s Partenavia aircraft, equipped with a camera and night vision systems, will record and supervise the operation. The aircraft is equipped with thermal imaging cameras for use in fire detection, along with coordinated mapping capabilities.

Upon completion of the night SEAT drop exercises and final evaluation by ODF’s Aviation Unit the plan is for staffing a SEAT at night in anticipation of a lightning event where night operations can be used in actual fire suppression on ODF protected lands.

ODF currently contracts five Single Engine Air Tankers as part of the suppression resources throughout Oregon.

Single engine air tanker damaged while scooping in Alaska

Air Tractor 802A Fire Boss
File photo of N80166 on the Snake River Fire.

A single engine air tanker (SEAT) was damaged as it scooped water while working on a fire north of Fairbanks, Alaska July 14, 2020. Thankfully the pilot was not seriously injured.

The aircraft is an Air Tractor 802A Fire Boss, N80166, operated by Dauntless Air.

I reached out to the company’s CEO, Brett L’Esperance to get more information:

After almost three hours fighting fire from the same scoop site, one of our Fire Bosses “caught an edge” at the beginning of a scoop and got pulled hard right.  Pilot tried correcting and almost pulled it off, but did end up running up on the bank of the scoop site and got stuck in the mud.

Airframe is fine, right wing was dinged by a tree on the edge of the lake and we’re assessing damage to the floats.

Pilot was not even bruised, but did scratch his thumb climbing out if the aircraft.

Below is the press release from the BLM Alaska Fire Service:

“(Fairbanks, Alaska) – No injuries were reported after an aircraft incident during suppression efforts on a wildfire about 120 air miles north of Fairbanks Tuesday afternoon. A BLM Alaska Fire Service dispatch center was notified at 3:56 p.m. of a incident involving a AT-802A Air Tractor Fire Boss working on the 15-acre Birch Creek Fire about 17 miles northwest of Circle. The Single Engine Air Tanker was one of six aircraft – four Fire Boss water scoopers, a helicopter and an air attack airplane guiding the suppression efforts – aiding eight BLM AFS smokejumpers on the ground. The aircraft was scooping out of an unnamed body of water about 2-3 miles north of the fire when the incident occurred. Two qualified emergency medical technician smokejumpers assessed the condition of the pilot, who was the sole occupant of the airplane and didn’t identify any injuries. The pilot was flown via BLM AFS helicopter to Fairbanks for further assessment at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital and released. The aircraft was deemed inoperable and will be removed from the scene after further investigation into the incident.

“The aircraft is owned by Dauntless Air Inc. of Appleton, Minn. and is one of four SEATs contracted by BLM AFS for Alaska’s fire season. All four were working on the fire at the time of the incident. The Department of the Interior Office of Aviation Services and the National Transportation Safety Board were notified.”

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

Wyoming hires two Single Engine Air Tankers

Adds two SEATs for suppressing wildfires

Single Engine Air Tanker contract Wyoming
Air Tractor AT-802 Single Engine Air Tanker under contract in Wyoming. N23WT. Photo via Wyoming State Forestry Division June 22, 2020.

The Wyoming State Forestry Division has hired two Single Engine Air Tankers. When last seen on June 17 they were at the Casper airport.

The agency made the announcement on Twitter June 22.

Wyoming has added two Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATS) this summer to help keep fires as small as possible. We are grateful for the opportunity to utilize these resources. A big thanks to @BLMWyoming whose generosity provided the airport space for these planes.

Single Engine Air Tanker contract Wyoming
Single Engine Air Tanker under contract in Wyoming. Photo via Wyoming State Forestry Division June 22, 2020.

34 Single Engine Air Tankers will be on BLM contract

Air Tanker 855 drops Indian Canyon Fire
Air Tanker 855 drops on the Indian Canyon Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota at 8:27 p.m. MDT July 16, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Bureau of Land Management will have 34 Single Engine Air Tankers on exclusive use contract this year to help fight wildfires, said Kari Cobb, Public Affairs Officer for the National Interagency Fire Center.

She said 100 additional SEATs will be on Call When Needed contracts, plus 19 amphibious SEATs known as Fire Bosses.

When asked if there are any plans to activate CWN SEATs more than usual this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said they are “[P]lanning for normal staffing at established locations.”

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.

Opinion: how to best utilize the aerial firefighting fleet

Tanker 892 single engine air tanker wildfire
Tanker 892, a SEAT, drops near the Aldrich Lookout Tower on the Sunflower Fire in Grant County, Oregon in 2014. Photo by Todd McKinley.

The following opinion article was sent to us by U.S. Forest Service retiree Bill Derr. He said it was written by him in consultation with personnel involved in aerial firefighting, retirees, aerial firefighting industry people, and some Forest Service employees both retired and presently working for the agency. Mr. Derr said “it reflects the collective views of knowledgeable people engaged in wildfire suppression”.


It’s time to finally get serious about how to best utilize our aerial firefighting fleet

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Aerial firefighting strategies and aircraft mobilization tactics must be revisited given the intensifying threat of US wildfires and mounting pressure to do so with limited additional funding. Existing models were built for a different time and have not kept pace with how much the wildfire fighting environment has changed for the worse. It is not lost on anyone who has been in the industry for more than a few years that getting on a fire faster, even with small amounts of water, water enhancer or retardant, significantly reduces the possibility of that fire start becoming national news. In the face of the 2020 wildfire season and the complications presented by managing it in a COVID‐19 operating environment, keeping small fires small, for as long as possible, will be a key success factor in limiting both the spread of the virus and number of large fires.

Fire agencies need to use the nation’s aerial firefighting assets in a manner that produces the best possible outcomes for our citizens and our ground‐based wildland fire fighters. The strategy is simple: lead the battle through the pre‐positioning of the numerous (~200) smaller, significantly less costly Special Operations assets such as wheeled SEATs, Fire Bosses and Type 3 helicopters and if the during the battle these assets look to be needing more support, send in the less numerous (~35) and more costly VLATs/LATs to ensure the fire is contained. This strategy would optimize the usage and effectiveness of the country’s entire aerial firefighting force and provide Incident Commanders the appropriate time required to request and receive the LATs and VLATs if needed.

Initial response and direct air strategies that utilize the large number of less costly smaller aircraft built to conduct rapid initial attack on the front lines – ideally in combination with smokejumpers, and often ahead of, ground fire suppression equipment and personnel – can better contain fires and keep them small. This provides the ground crews an advantage in putting out blazes more efficiently, helping to limit wildfire devastation and the ever‐increasing associated costs for fire suppression, and freeing up valuable funds for the federal and state restoration and forest management work that helps prevent catastrophic fires in the first place.

THE 2009 FLAME ACT – WE HAVE BEEN THINKING ABOUT THIS FOR SOME TIME – NOW WE NEED TO MAKE THE EFFORT TO LIVE UP TO THE GOALS SET FORTH YEARS AGO
Improving the safety and effectiveness of wildfire response is the highest priority set forth by the US Departments of Interior and Agriculture in the 2014 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy1 (National Strategy), commissioned by Congress as part of the 2009 FLAME act2. This strategic priority includes “enhancing wildfire response preparedness with an emphasis on both structural protection and wildfire prevention to maximize the effectiveness of initial response.” The second priority aims to restore our nation’s landscapes through vegetation and fuels management. General guidance in this area includes “designing and prioritizing fuel treatments; strategically placing fuel treatments; increasing use of wildland fire for meeting resource objectives; and continuing and expanding the use of all methods to improve the resiliency of our forests and rangelands.” The final priority involves “engaging homeowners and communities in creating fire adapted communities where populations and infrastructure can withstand fire without loss of property.” To move the needle toward achieving National Strategy goals, the way we wildfire response tactics must be reevaluated to improve effectiveness and rein in costs. By doing so, we can ensure that programs to restore and maintain US landscapes are positioned (and funded) to succeed.

A CHANGE IN THE AIR
The first pillar of the National Strategy—improving the safety and effectiveness of wildfire response—is more important than ever as blazes burn larger and dangerously hot over the course of a longer season. One area of wildfire response that is primed for increased effectiveness is the use of aerial firefighting.

For decades now, the use of firefighting aircraft has been central to wildfire response programs. However, as the decades have passed by, traditional aerial firefighting strategies have remained mostly unchanged despite the shifting fire environment and the introduction of new aircraft, technologies and tactics. To increase response effectiveness, it is time for these strategies to be revisited.

The yet to be published USFS Aerial Firefighting Usage and Effectiveness Study (AFUES), initiated in 2012, will likely produce a result that is already obvious to most wildland firefighters: the probability of succeeding in battling a wildfire and living to see another day is significantly increased when you start working a fire start within the first hour. The problem of that being the outcome of the study is that there aren’t enough LATs/VLATs and Type 1 and 2 helicopters in the currently contracted USFS fleet to ever achieve that goal and little or no additional funding to make it happen. These agencies need to find a way to do more with same amount of limited funding. What this paper proposes is a way to do so.

Fortunately, an entire fleet of smaller fixed‐wing and rotary assets do exist to achieve this goal. Our state and federal fire agencies, primarily driven by the USFS, need to rethink the integration of these smaller, easily and cost effectively distributed assets into their response to wildfire starts. A multimillion dollar study that has not been completed in well over 8 years is not needed for most fire fighters who have been in the industry over the last two to three decades. Let’s start demanding a change in how we use these costly assets. It will result in better outcomes for every citizen in a fire prone region (less devastation and healthcare impact) and significantly reduce the risk and danger posed to our wildland firefighting brothers and sisters that results from long drawn out campaign fires.

Aerial firefighting through initial response to wildfires
It is well known that aerial firefighting is most effective through initial attack on small wildfires3. During initial attack, small, prepositioned initial attack fixed wing aircraft and helicopters can arrive on a scene within minutes, carrying loads of water or retardant that can help contain a situation until ground crews arrive to put it out. If smokejumpers are available in the area, the probability of success increases substantially. Each time a small wildfire is suppressed during initial response, agencies prevent greater devastation and millions more in associated costs that come with large and very large fires4. In fact, a USDA Audit Report found that when success rate of USFS initial response dropped by 1.5% in 2007, it represented an estimated 150 more fires that escaped containment and cost the Forest Service an additional $300 million to $450 million to suppress5. By avoiding decreases like this and instead improving the success rate of initial attack, the USFS could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in savings that could be used to fund critical fuels management tactics like forest thinning and prescribed burns. The full benefits of reliable and successful initial attack are realized when small wildfires are quickly suppressed and the resulting budget savings are funneled into programs that help restore ecological balance to our forests and better protect against megafires for years and decades to come.

Additionally, there are public health benefits to extinguishing fires through initial attack. A lower amount of smoke is released into the air, which in past wildfire situations has affected the health of thousands of people in communities across the US. Fewer harmful carbons are emitted, which research shows can have a lasting impact on climate change—severe wildfire seasons such as 2015, 2017 and 2018 have the potential to release a decade’s worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere in just a single season6. The degradation of water quality is also reduced when a wildfire is suppressed quickly, as each large wildfire increases susceptibility of watersheds to flooding and erosion which can have short and long‐term impacts on water supplies, such as increased treatment costs, need for alternative supplies, and diminished reservoir capacity7. These public health benefits underscore the importance of the National Strategy’s first priority, “to maximize the effectiveness of initial response” so wildfires can be suppressed and extinguished while they’re still small.

More specifically regarding public health, the 2020 season is going to be an even greater challenge than any other previous season as a result of the COVID‐19 pandemic. Fire agencies will be focused on reducing the number and size of fire camps this coming season due to the potential of infection across a larger portion of a camp. They will also be trying to minimize the number of evacuations that result in citizens needing to shelter for protection in local gyms and auditoriums. To achieve these goals, fire agencies will need to provide as much aerial firefighting force as possible, as quickly as possible.8

However, the reality is that the current aerial firefighting models are not optimized to execute the swift, reliable initial response needed to control fires that are burning and spreading more quickly today due to climate change and unhealthy landscapes. Rather, firefighting aircraft are more often deployed when a fire has already escaped containment and grown into a larger, more expensive disaster. When this happens, typically large and very large air tankers (LATs and VLATs) are used to initiate an indirect attack. Over the course of the indirect attack, LATs and VLATs complete numerous drops of retardant to contain the blaze. Turnaround time between drops often exceeds one to two hours for LATs and VLATs due to the time‐intensive procedures required for loading high volumes of retardants. Turnaround time may also be impacted by basing requirements, as large aircraft must operate out of large airports with retardant loading infrastructure (only ~60 of those west of the Mississippi), as opposed to smaller, regional bases (1,000s of these) that are often closer to fire prone areas. As with all aircraft, turnaround time contributes to the overall length of a wildfire mission, which in turn increases aircraft operating costs. In some situations, incident managers have tried to ameliorate long turnaround times by “filling the gap” with an additional LAT or VLAT to help paint more lines around a fire. Doing so essentially doubles the cost of a suppression mission.

When a small fire does break initial containment efforts, LATs and VLATs play a critical role in suppression, but at a high cost. Significant acquisition and retrofitting costs, plus on‐going maintenance requirements, naturally limits the number of LATs and VLATs that can be made available. There just aren’t that many of these aircraft to meet the supply of fire starts. For example, for the 2020 season, the US Forest Service will have only 18 exclusive use (EU) LAT/VLAT contracts and 17 call‐when‐needed (CWN) contracts for aircraft of the same size9. With such a small number of large aircraft operating from a limited number of bases that have the extensive retardant loading infrastructure, LATs and VLATs cannot be as widely distributed and numerous as smaller, less expensive aircraft across a fire‐prone region. Given the broadening geographic areas requiring potential fire suppression, and the limited number of LATs and VLATs available, there is simply too much ground to cover to ensure a swift, reliable initial attack. This structural challenge for large aircraft, combined with higher operating costs, makes LATs and VLATs primarily, if not solely, suited for indirect attack on large fires, or as suggested in this document, supplemental back‐up to the aerial initial attack efforts. While this type of response will continue to have a highly effective and important role in fighting big blazes, public entities must bolster rapid initial attack capability in order to quickly respond to and contain fire starts in the WUI when they are still small. Otherwise, small wildfires will continue to become large public health disasters that require millions of dollars to suppress and cost the country billions of dollars in devastation and rebuilding.

A NEW PATH FORWARD
Most wildfires start as small, containable situations. But when a spark occurs in today’s shifting environment, a rapid, direct and reliable initial response is needed in order to avoid a large, multimillion‐ dollar disaster. By bolstering their initial attack capabilities with purpose‐built firefighting aircraft, fire agencies can knock down fires more quickly, keep them cooler and better support crews on the ground that are putting out the flames. If the same fire agencies could rely on smokejumpers as much as they used to decades ago, the initial attack combo of timely aerial initial attacks assets and supporting smokejumpers on the ground would have outstanding results. Given the large number of wheeled SEATs, Fire Bosses and Type 3 helicopters in the U.S., fire agencies should lead any fire response, regardless of who’s land it has started on, with these aircraft to slow and cool the fire until ground resources arrive. Through leading the initial attack with these aircraft, when a fire start does break the containment efforts of initial attack, these agencies can utilize the scarcer and costly LATs and VLATs to bolster the fight only when they’re needed. This approach makes common sense, fire sense and dollars and cents. Doing so helps divert the large wildfires that are predicted to increase in frequency over the coming years and decades. Key to the success of this model is using money saved from reduced suppression costs to fund forest health programs like forest thinning and prescribed burns that reduce the enormous “inventory” of fuels on the ground that require mitigation efforts.

Prioritize the use of rapid initial attack aircraft
During initial response to a wildfire start, every minute counts. Small, pre‐positioned initial attack aircraft are needed for their ability to quickly get off the ground, arrive at a scene and nimbly maneuver around fire’s frontline to drop continuous loads of water or retardant as soon as possible. These aircraft can quickly reload in between drops, returning to small, regional airports to reload, or scooping directly from a water source nearby the fire situation (Fire Bosses and helicopters). These capabilities combine to support a rapid, reliable initial response to fire starts and small wildfires. Only a handful of initial attack aircraft are in large enough number to provide the necessary capabilities across a broad enough swath of the fire prone landscape during the fire season. They are:

  • Helicopters. Smaller, typically Type 3 helicopters can take off and be en route to a fire in a matter of minutes, making them an effective complement to aerial firefighting arsenals. Helicopters have the advantage of dropping water, water enhancers or retardant based on the situation at hand and can reload from small water sources or staged tanks that can be positioned very close to a fire. The disadvantage of helicopters is load size. Oftentimes a Type 3 helicopter can only carry a bucket that holds 150 to 300 gallons. Even so, these helicopters when deployed in larger numbers can be effective initial responders to a wildfire. Best estimates put the number of these assets in the 100 or so range.
  • Single engine air tankers (SEATs). Like, Type 3 helicopters, SEATs can take off and be en route to a fire situation faster than larger aircraft, a critical capability for successful initial response. Based on the situation at hand, SEATs can carry loads of water, water enhancers or retardant to drop on hot spots and help control and cool the fire situation until ground crews can arrive. Wheeled SEATs carry loads of about 800 gallons which allow for “surgical” drops on a fire, enabling the aircraft to work closer and more safely with ground crews. Wheeled SEATs can operate out of smaller, regional air bases that are often closer to fires in the WUI, cutting down on turnaround time. Based on the historical number of wheeled SEATs that the BLM has contracted with over the years, there are roughly 60 to 75 of these aircraft outfitted to fight fire.
  • Fire Bosses. When equipped with amphibious floats, a wheeled SEAT becomes an 800‐gallon scooping air tanker. When near a water source, an aircraft like the Fire Boss can perform continuous scoops and drops on a fire for 3.5 hours straight – without needing to return to a base to reload during this time. This platform combines the best attributes of helicopters, wheeled SEATs and LATs/VLATs derived from its ability to be contracted cost effectively, be positioned close to fire‐prone areas for fast response and drop as much suppressant volume on a fire in a given hour as any LAT /VLAT. Given that most human settlement is near water, and at least two‐thirds of historical fires in the US have been within ten miles of a scooper‐accessible water source10, there is undeniable value to adding Fire Bosses to firefighting arsenals. There will be 19 Fire Bosses available for the 2020 wildfire season.

Smaller, less costly fixed‐wing and rotary assets enable a widely distributed basing strategy in anticipation of dispersed fire starts. SEATs, whether wheeled or on floats like on a Fire Boss, and Type 3 helicopters are much less expensive to contract and operate than LATs/VLATs and Type 1 and 2 helicopters, allowing departments to deploy more aircraft and create “nodes” of resources in fire prone areas. With more nodes of aircraft in more flexible and more fire prone locations, these assets can dramatically improve the speed, effectiveness and reliability of initial response and extended operations throughout a fire‐prone region. With almost 200 of these types of aircraft ready to go, why aren’t we using these aircraft as the Special Operations assets that they are and backing them up with the power and might of the 35 LATs/VLATs available?

IN SUMMARY
Climate change, expansion of the WUI and today’s unhealthy landscapes are combining to create costlier fires that are burning and spreading much more quickly than they did 20‐30 years ago. In the face of this new world order, public entities must bolster rapid and direct initial air attack capability by incorporating a network of numerous smaller, lower cost, initial‐attack aircraft into aerial firefighting arsenals. Doing so will prepare agencies, and the country, to rapidly respond to and contain fire situations in the WUI before small blazes escape and become multi‐acre, multi‐million‐dollar devastations. Only then can we return critical funds to forest management programs that reduce the fuels accumulating in our wildlands and restore the vitality of our nation’s forests.


1 Jewell, Sally, and Thomas J. Vilsack. The National Strategy ‐ The Final Phase in the Development of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. PDF. Washington D.C.: U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture, April 2014.

2 Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (2009) (enacted).

3 Aerial Firefighting Tutorial.” AHSAFA.org (web log). Accessed February 2018.

4 Keating, Edward G., Andrew R. Morral, Carter C. Price, Dulani Woods, Daniel M. Norton, Christina Panis, Evan Saltzman, and Ricardo Sanchez. “Air Attack Against Wildfires. Report. RAND Corporation.

5 H.R. Rep. No. 08601‐53‐SF (2009).

6 Struzik, Edward. Firestorm. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

7 Smith, Hugh G., Gary J. Sheridan, Patrick N.j. Lane, Petter Nyman, and Shane Haydon. “Wildfire effects on water quality in forest catchments: A review with implications for water supply.” Journal of Hydrology 396, no. 1‐2 (2011): 170‐92. Accessed March 14, 2018. doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2010.10.043.

8 Gabbert, Bill. “Fighting Wildfires During a Pandemic” Fire Aviation (blog), March 19, 2020. Accessed March 25, 2020. 

9 Gabbert, Bill. “Forest Service awards contracts for five exclusive use air tankers” Fire Aviation (blog), March 26, 2020. Accessed March 26, 2020.

10 Keating, Edward G., Andrew R. Morral, Carter C. Price, Dulani Woods, Daniel M. Norton, Christina Panis, Evan Saltzman, and Ricardo Sanchez. “Air Attack Against Wildfires. Report. RAND Corporation.

Scores of single engine air tankers have seen action in Australia’s bushfire season

Air Tractor AT-802F
Air Tractor AT-802F. Air Tractor photo.

Now that all of the major bushfires in Australia have been knocked down by combined efforts of firefighters and rain, we can look back on one of the busiest fire seasons in Australia’s history.

In September, 2019 before the contracts were awarded, Richard Alder General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) said he expected that there would be approximately 45 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) on national exclusive use contracts in the 2019/2020 bushfire season, plus another six contracted directly to state government agencies. That was 8 less than in 2018/2019. Others could be activated on what we call in the United States Call When Needed agreements.

The SEATs being used in Australia are manufactured by Air Tractor and other companies. Air Tractor sent us information about how their SEATs played a role in battling the fires. Here are some excerpts:


The firefighting effort was a massive undertaking on the ground and in the air. While large airtankers (LATs) did much of the heavy lifting for the recent fires, it is estimated that 65 of the existing 81 Air Tractor AT-802 airplanes in Australia also saw action over the blazes.

The Australian National Aerial Fire Council (NAFC), which oversees the contracting on behalf of the various states, reported they contracted 54 AT-802’s. Four of seven Australia-based AT- 802F Fire Boss amphibious scooper airtankers were also under NAFC contracts. Additionally, some states engaged AT-802 firefighting airplanes on “as-needed” contracts. Sources estimated this accounted for as many as ten additional AT-802s put into service.

Most of the contracted AT-802F aircraft are equipped with the Pratt & Whitney 1,600 SHP PT6A-67F turboprop engine. It powers the airplane at speeds approaching 200 m.p.h. (174 kts.) while ferrying between the fire and its airtanker base or mobile retardant base. In most cases, NAFC-contracted AT-802 airtankers operate in pairs. This tactic multiplies the amount of retardant or suppressant delivered to the incident and reduces time between deliveries. Once over the fire, the AT-802F and Fire Boss deliver their retardant, gel or water with computer-controlled precision to knock down grass and brush fires or suppress fires in heavier canopies.

Australia’s devastating fires kept Air Tractors and the Australian aerial firefighting community working hard this season. Many Air Tractor operators had a slow agricultural spray season as a consequence of the very dry conditions leading up to the fires. And now that heavy rains have quelled the wildfires, AT-802 airplanes may be put into service for habitat restoration. Their 800-gallon capacity hopper, speed, and maneuverability make quick work of hydromulch application or reseeding for erosion control.

Air Tractor AT-802F Fire Boss. Air Tractor photo.
Air Tractor AT-802F Fire Boss. Air Tractor photo.