How Aerial Firefighting Works

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Diagram of air operations

Diagram of a tanker drop

Aerial description of a fire

Attacking a fire from the air is a completely new experience of radio monitoring and fire observation. The coordination it takes to run the air show is remarkable and great to listen to over the radio. Anywhere in the state of California, firefighting aircraft can reach a fire within 20 minutes. That is a plus for CA because it can take an hour before the first engine can arrive on a remote incident. While air attack bases scatter across the state, helitack bases are placed in strategic spots as well. Most of the time a helitack base is placed in between air attack bases to shorten the response time of an aircraft over a given incident.

When the call goes out for aircraft, the air attack base scrambles like an air force base. Pilots run to the planes, retardant mixers run to the tanks, and the ground crew helps taxi the plane out of the loading bays and onto the taxi way. The helicopter and its crew will also scramble and be in the air quickly from its helibase. The airport by this time should have shutdown temporarily as the firefighting aircraft have right of way. If you're lucky enough to know the backroads around the airport you can usually sit at the end of the runway and get a good rush as the plane lumbers overhead, just inches above you. (You can do this at Redding). Some bases even have viewing platforms overlooking the loading bays.

As the helicopter gets onscene, it must drop its crew and attach the bucket. If it is first onscene, it will take the role as Air Attack for the time being, giving an aerial description of the fire back to dispatch and the incident commander before landing. Once it lands, the crew will exit with all of their specialized tools and then attach the bucket to the bottom. At this point, the copter takes off in search of the nearest "pond" to load up on water, and the crew hikes into the fire for immediate attack.

Once the tankers arrive overhead, air attack will establish where the hazards are such as powerlines, where the copters are filling, and the parts of the fire. They will then start the ballet dance of directing tankers and copters in for their drops. On most initial attack fires, there will only be one copter. Air Attack will often let them freelance at the copter's discretion (find their own hotspots to drop on), staying off the fire when a tanker goes in for a drop.

Lead Planes are used over federal fires and while being able to help air attack in command/observation etc., typically just lead the heavy tankers into canyons and acting as a "follow me." The lead plane can go into a canyon or tight area just ahead of the heavy tanker and get an idea of the winds and dangers at that given moment. They can make the call for an immediate abort and the heavy tanker behind will be able to avoid the danger.