Aviation Fighting Forest Wildfires-the problem, developments, inventory & debate and pilots

western fires map
Share this article: FacebooktwitterlinkedinFacebooktwitterlinkedin

Major US problem

 Aviation Contributes to the Fight

 Advanced Techniques, Inventory, Pilots -including a 19 year old

The Problem

Wildfire risk rises with 43 million U.S. homes near land susceptible to blazes

airplane attacks house fire


Last year’s fires killed 53 people, including 14 firefighters, and burned more than 10 million acres, an area larger than Maryland. More than 12,300 homes and other structures were destroyed.

The government spent a record $2.9 billion to suppress last year’s fires, Christiansen told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.

“Early predictions indicate that 2018 will likely be another challenging wildfire year,” she said.

Already this year, nearly 24,000 wildfires have burned 1.7 million acres across the country, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the committee.

The Forest Service and its partners have more than 10,000 firefighters, 900 engines and hundreds of aircraft available to manage the fires, Christiansen told senators.

“At this time, we believe these to be adequate resources to address wildfire activity, but will continue to evaluate our needs as the year progresses,” she said.

The Interior Department also plans to deploy more than 4,000 firefighters this year and will have access to 89 air tankers and other equipment to battle forest fires, said Jeffery Rupert, director of the Office of Wildland Fire.

A wildfire package included in a massive spending bill that Congress passed in March also will be key to helping the Forest Service fight this year’s fires, Christiansen said.

The bill created a wildfire disaster fund to help fight increasingly severe fires and set aside more than $20 billion over 10 years to enable the Forest Service and other federal agencies to stop borrowing from non-fire-related accounts to pay for wildfire costs.

Federal agencies have sought the changes for years, Murkowski said, and lawmakers expect them to be put to good use.  “So, no excuses there,” she said.

Christiansen said the changes will enable the Forest Service to act more swiftly and do more to improve the conditions of forests and grasslands to help reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.

2018 fire status

Secretary Perdue had advocated for a fix for the way the U.S. Forest Service is funded for fighting wildfires since taking office in April 2017. Congress included the solution in the FY 2018 Omnibus Spending Package, which has been signed into law by President Donald J. Trump.

Cobra helicopter

The solution included in the omnibus provides a new funding structure from FY2020 through      FY2027. Beginning in FY2020, $2.25 billion of new budget authority is available to USDA and the Department of the Interior. The budget authority increases by $100 million each year, ending at $2.95 billion in new budget authority by FY2027. For the duration of the 8-year fix, the fire suppression account will be funded at the FY 2015 President’s Budget request – $1.011 billion. If funding in the cap is used, the Secretary of Agriculture must submit a report to Congress documenting aspects of fire season, such as decision-making and cost drivers, that led to the expenditures. The omnibus includes a 2-year extension of Secure Rural Schools, providing provide rural counties approximately $200 million more per year. It also provides Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act Reauthorization.




Air tankers to be cut by one-third in 2018


February 16, 2018

Ms. Anderson said the Administration’s plans for Fiscal Year 2019 which begins October 1, 2018, call for 18 Exclusive Use large air tankers. However, Congress has not passed a budget for FY 2019 and based on their recent history, it may or may not happen. Continuing Resolutions which freeze spending at previous levels, have been enacted more frequently than conventional full-year budgets. And if it is passed, there is no guarantee that the Administration’s recommendations will be honored…

New Developments

Wildfire warriors: the latest developments in aerial firefighting technology

“…We are modifying the land by clear cutting, inhabiting, entering, industry, agriculture and so on. With this, the fire regimes and the vulnerabilities of ecosystems are changing.”

It’s a view shared by Bob Gann, acting director at the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting. “[Wildfires are] getting worse because people are intruding on areas and we are changing the field loads in the forest,” he said.

Gann’s team is at the forefront of exploring how technology can help firefighters meet this evolving challenge. A key avenue of research is the development of tools that could enable firefighters to tackle blazes at night.

In many ways the conditions at night-time are ideal for firefighting: reduced temperatures, increased humidity and often lighter winds cause fires to ‘stand down’, providing a window of opportunity for crews on the ground. Surprisingly, though, very little night-time firefighting takes place, with the advantages of more favourable conditions often outweighed by concerns over poor visibility and, consequently, an increased risk of collision.

helicopter fighting fire at night

Night-vision systems similar to those used by the military seem to be a ready-made solution here. However, according to Gann, these technologies struggle with the contrast between darkness and the glare of a fire, and his team is investigating the application of augmented reality (AR) technology specially optimised for firefighting


…Another way of addressing the human risk of flying at night, of course, is to remove the pilot altogether by using drones, or unmanned air systems (UAS).  In the US in particular, drones are already becoming an indispensable part of the wildfire fighter’s arsenal. The US Department of the Interior (DoI) operates around 350 remotely operated quadcopters, 100 or so of which are used specifically for firefighting reconnaissance and mapping missions. Last year alone the DoI flew around 660 flights to tackle 71 wildfires across the country.

drone firefightingSean Triplett of the US Forest Service said satellites had been used for a number of years to understand the impact of wildfires, but the emergence of cubesats – smaller, lower-cost devices that are becoming increasingly widely used by the research community – holds great promise for wildfire monitoring. These diminutive spacecraft could, he said, be launched into orbit in flocks of up to 200, providing far more persistent coverage than existing orbiting satellites, which typically passed by only every four to six hours.



New Satellite Mapping Technique Gives Firefighters Big Picture


[The above are brief excerpts from a long, very informative article.]

The Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Study 

  • he results of the study may lead to improvements in training, mission selection and execution, and eventually fleet planning, leading to overall improvement in aviation cost effectiveness and potentially to fire suppression cost savings.
  • AFUE collects aircraft drop location and information including the objectives and outcomes for each drop, along with terrain, slope, fuel type, fire behavior, weather conditions and other factors that may influence drop effectiveness.
  • By documenting the objectives, conditions and outcomes of individual drops, AFUE provides a means to identify and track the performance of specific aircraft types, and assess the influence of the operational missions that drops supported and environmental factors that influenced outcomes.
  • All AFUE missions are coordinated through Geographic Area Coordination Centers, local dispatch centers and the on-scene local Incident Command System, and try not to influence operational decisions or outcomes. AFUE operates at no cost to any incident for the data collection mission.
  • The AFUE study uses four “observation modules” of three qualified firefighters each as well as a dedicated aircraft to collect ground and aerial data throughout the nation and throughout fire season.

AFUE chart table








The Inventory and Debate


CA aircraft pamphlet




2017 list and not 100% complete

Boeing 747

The modified 747 is equipped with a 24,000-gallon tank and a pressurized system that can shoot flame retardant at high pressure or simply disperse it while flying over a fire.

Unlike helicopters that can hover above a fire, the 747 must approach at 140 knots and pass between 400 and 800 feet above the flames to deliver its massive load.


The DC-10 used by Cal Fire used to fly for Pan Am and American Airlines. It can carry 12,000 gallons of flame retardant that, when dispersed, creates a cloud 300 feet wide and a mile long.

According to Cal Fire, one DC-10 drop is equivalent to 12 drops from an S-2 air tanker. Because of its size and the infrastructure needed to support its operation, this jet is only used for extended missions.

Grumman S-2T

Known for its speed and maneuverability, the S-2T was a U.S. Navy anti-submarine warfare airplane in a past life. Cal Fire now has approximately two dozen of the turboprops in its arsenal. The aircraft can cruise at speeds of 305 mph with a 1,200-gallon payload commonly used for initial attack delivery.


Dubbed the “Super Huey,” the UH-1H was once used by the Army for troop and cargo transport operations. Now heavily modified, the choppers can do it all: crew transport, water and foam drops, medical evacuations backfiring operations and infrared mapping.

CL-215/ Bombardier 415 “Superscooper”

Nicknamed the Superscooper, these seaplanes scoop water from lakes and reservoirs into their belly that can be directly dropped onto flames or mixed with a foam retardant. The Bombardier model can travel at more than 200 mph with 1,621 gallons of water on board.



Sikorsky S-70 “Firehawk”

The Firehawk is a civilian version of the well-known Blackhawk helicopter commonly used by the United States Army for air assault missions. The aircraft can either be used with a large 1,000-gallon tank mounted on its belly or with a bucket.

U.S. Firefighters Reject Big Russian Jet

“It’s a good plane, a large one, a heavy capacity plane,” says Wayne Bushnell, the Forest Service’s acting international fire specialist. “But it does have some limitations. It’s a jet, so it flies at very high speed. The tanking system which allows it to carry the water and dispense it is not a real sophisticated type system.”

The Ilyushin-76 also flies too high and too fast, Bushnell says. It requires a long runway, demands extra ground crew, and lacks the precision of a helicopter or smaller plane. And it is designed to drop foam-treated water, not the longer-term retardant that the Forest Service usually uses.

747 SuperTanker fights fire for first time

Global SuperTanker Service’s Boeing 747-400 marked its first use in the United States after it was activated to fight a California wildfire

Colorado soon to add 747 SuperTanker to wildfire-fighting arsenal


Arizona National Guard aviators head to California to fight wildfires …

Oregon Army National Guard aviators douse wildfires across the state …

Cal Guard aviators prepare for wildfires with CAL FIRE – DVIDS

firefighter crews




Female power on display during Ferguson Fire

Montanan,19, plays instrumental role in fighting fire from way above
| August 09, 2018

Assistant Editorthe female helicopter pilot

Ann Hansen of Philipsburg, Mont. is shown standing beside a Sikorsky helicopter at the Mariposa Yosemite Airport. “They’re big guys,” she deadpanned about Sikorskys.

Ann Hansen is young, but she isn’t letting that stop her from living her dream, even if it is a dream fraught with danger.

Hansen, 19, was in Mariposa over the last few weeks battling the Ferguson Fire — just not as a firefighter on the ground.

She is a copilot of a Sikorsky CH-54A Sky-crane helicopter. Along with her captain, Gregg Deacon, she has been flying into dangerous areas near the fire and dropping water and retardant to douse the flames.

“At most times out here, people ask if I’m with my dad or grandpa,” said Hansen in an interview while stationed at the Mariposa Yosemite Airport. “I look young for my age, like I’m still in high school.”

Indeed, Hansen looks like she could still be in high school. But don’t let the youthful face fool you. She’s up to the task.

“I’ve been very impressed with her, especially considering her minimal amount of experience,” said Deacon, the pilot. “It’s a complex aircraft and our mission is complex. She’s monitoring a lot of instruments and dealing with most of the radio calls. She’s doing a lot of multitasking. And we go into some difficult types of places.”

pilot in cockpit

Ann Hansen, a helicopter copilot, is shown inside a Sikorsky used to battle flames in Mariposa County. The irony is that Hansen is afraid of heights. “I’m terrified of heights,” Hansen said. “It’s way different when you’re in an aircraft. You focus on what you’re doing.” Photos by Matt Johnson

Hansen is from Philipsburg, Mont. It was there that she developed an interest in flying.

Her father worked as a ranch manager. Every year, Hansen would be inspired by watching crop dusters fly overhead.

Adding to her interest in flying was the fact that her father also wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Only he never took the opportunity.

“I always had that in my head growing up,” she says of wanting to fly a helicopter.

Ten days after she graduated high school, she started in flight school at Rocky Mountain Rotors, in Belgrade, Mont. Shortly thereafter, she transferred to Jerry Trimble Helicopters flight school in Oregon.

“I never had any previous aviation experience,” Hansen said. “It was overwhelming.”

She stuck with it, and in a short period of time, she became certified to become a helicopter co-pilot.

“My parents are thrilled with it,” Hansen said, acknowledging that in a way, she is fulfilling her father’s dream of flying.

She now works for Helicopter Transport Services and has the opportunity to work on fires as well as other special projects.

“It just depends where they need me to go,” said Hansen. “The challenge is fun.”

She admits there is danger in what she does. Engines could fail on the copter, or worse.

“Everything we do has a little risk,” Hansen said. “(But) it’s fun, for one, and you’re helping with something.”

Hansen’s end goal is to become a “PIC,” or a pilot in charge. Essentially, it’s the rank of captain.

“There is still a lot to explore,” she said.

There may be plenty to explore, but for someone who is only 19, Ann Hansen has already experienced quite a bit.house burning


Share this article: FacebooktwitterlinkedinFacebooktwitterlinkedin

Be the first to comment on "Aviation Fighting Forest Wildfires-the problem, developments, inventory & debate and pilots"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.