Monitoring Aerial Firefighting
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Air Administration
Freq RX tone Description
168.625   Air Guard

Flight Following

165.550   Smoke Jumpers
123.975   Air Attack Bases
163.100   Temp Helibases

How Aerial Firefighting Works

Air Guard is monitered in every fire-fighting aircraft as an emergency hailing frequency, much like Marine Channel 16. If an aircraft can't be found on any other frequency, they will call on this frequency as a last resort. Definitely worth having in your fire-season scanner bank. Air Guard has some high-level remote bases for ground monitoring and remote transmissions.

Flight Following is typically used for aircraft transitioning between incidents or travelling long-distances. Aircraft being called on Air Guard will move to this frequency to talk further. Numerous air bases and dispatch centers monitor this channel and can hail any aircraft within its range, and vice versa, aircraft will hail an airbase or dispatch center it thinks it's within range of. Lots of logistical traffic occurs here with air tankers and is a good frequency to follow during fire season to keep tabs on the big picture of what's happening.

Smoke Jumpers like to hang on the 168.550 since it is a very quiet frequency. It is also the ICS Calling Frequency so it's fairly quiet.

All California Air Attack Bases can be monitored on 123.975 for general ramp operations etc. You'll hear pilots talking to the ramp operators telling where to load their tankers etc. The 163.100 Deck frequency is used on larger fires where a temporary helibase is setup at the incident. In case of multiple incidents nearby, additional Deck frequencies could be assigned out of the Fed Common Use freqs seen on the USFS page.

Air to Ground
Freq Name Description
167.600 AG-43 Forest North of Redding
166.875 AG-08

Forest North of Redding

167.500 AG-14 Forest South of Redding
169.1125 AG-59 Forest South of Redding/SoCal
167.475 AG-41 Forest Mid-Sierras and LPF
168.6375 AG-24 Forest Mid-Sierras and LPF
168.4875 AG-53 Forests SoCal
170.000   Legacy USFS AirGround
151.220 AG-1 CalFire Air Ground
159.2625 AG-2 CalFire tone192.8
159.3675 AG-3 CalFire tone192.8
166.675 unk USFS possible A/G now
169.150 unk

USFS possible A/G now

169.200 unk USFS possible A/G now

Air to Ground is used for any aircraft talking to any ground resource. You will hear helicopters talking to their ground fire crews, or their ground support unit, or you'll hear air attack over an incident giving an update to the Incident Commander and coordinating with ground troops to get out of the way before a tanker or copter drop.

USFS is transitioning from an Air/Ground of 170.000 to multiple Air/Grounds depending on geographic region. 170.000 should be deprecated by the end of 2012 fire season.

CALFIRE has three Air to Ground frequencies to use for Initial Attack. Each CalFire Unit has an assigned A/G channel of 1, 2 or 3. Any state fire going into extended attack typically will move to a "higher-than-12" CalFire tactical such as CalFire Tac18. This relieves the original Air-to-Ground back for IA in the Unit.

USFS has three unknown use frequencies that used to be Air Tactics 1-3. I still hear them often over Forest fires, especially in extended attack, with traffic sounding like Air/Ground. I have a feeling these frequencies are in sort of a transition in 2015 and aren't named yet.

Air to Air (FM)
Freq Name Description
151.280 Air Tactics 4 CalFire Tone110.9
151.295 Air Tactics 5 CalFire Tone110.9
151.310 Air Tactics 6 CalFire Tone110.9
151.2725 Air Tactics 21 CalFire Tone110.9
151.2875 Air Tactics 22 CalFire Tone110.9
151.3025 Air Tactics 23 CalFire Tone110.9
151.3625 Air Tactics 24 CalFire Tone110.9
167.950   USFS A/A and A/G

Air Tactics is for the air-to-air tactical traffic between the aircraft over the fire. Air Attack is the spotter plane orbiting high above the fire, coordinating with the air tankers and helicopters over the air tactics frequency. This can give you a great overview of the fire conditions and what's happening. When an incident gets multiple helicopters overhead, typically Air Attack will move the copters over to a Victor Air-to-Air frequency (listed below) where the copters can coordinate themselves. When too many copters are up to safely coordinate themselves, a Helicopter Coordinator ("HELCO") will be assigned. This will either be a helco-approved operator on an existing helicopter, or a separate airship just for managing the copters. This relieves Air Attack to only worry about the fixed-wing air tankers. Air Attack will then coordinate with the Helco for rotor-wing ops.

Air Tactics 1-3 were assigned to federal fires up until 2013. For the 2013 Fire Season, federal fires appear to now be assigned Air Tactics 30-51. It is unknown what the legacy USFS Air 1-3 will be used for, but look for them being used in extended attack. Air Tactics 4-23 are assigned to state fires. These are initial attack channels. If a fire goes into extended attack (multi-day fight), they may choose the legacy Air Tactics 1-3 or a random federal frequency (see below).

All FM aircraft communications are narrowband over state and federal incidents. No CTCSS tone protection in use.

USFS Air to Air (FM)
Freq Name Forest Use
162.750 Air Tactics 30 ENF
163.1625 Air Tactics 31


163.6875 Air Tactics 32 SNF **
164.1375 Air Tactics 33 BDF
164.500 Air Tactics 34 CNF
164.7875 Air Tactics 35 MNF
164.875 Air Tactics 36 PNF, BDF
164.9375 Air Tactics 37 TNF
164.9875 Air Tactics 38 MDF **
165.0125 Air Tactics 39 SHF
165.075 Air Tactics 40 KNF **
165.225 Air Tactics 41


166.250 Air Tactics 42 CNF **
167.700 Air Tactics 43 TMU, SQF, SHF, SRF, STF, TNF

Air Tactics 44

168.9625 Air Tactics 45 SQF **
169.125 Air Tactics 46 INF, ANF, MNF
169.175 Air Tactics 47 ANF,
170.525 Air Tactics 48 STF
173.775 Air Tactics 49 MDF **
168.2625 Air Tactics 50 LPF **
164.150 Air Tactics 51 LPF **
166.9875 Air Tactics 52  
167.300 Air Tactics 53  
168.3125 Air Tactics 54  
168.3875 Air Tactics 55  
164.800 Air Tactics 56  
165.700 Air Tactics 57  
165.750 Air Tactics 58  
171.1375 Air Tactics 59  
173.775 Air Tactics 60 (was T49 in 2013)

I quickly noticed aircraft dispatched to USFS incidents in LNF and MNF were being assigned Air Tactics in the 30-51 range in the 2013 fire season. I was shocked and started hunting around for more. I soon noticed some new radio loads referring to these channels for our local forests. About the same time, other documents starting popping up alluding to a complete listing of Air Tactics 30-51, with each Forest in USFS Region 5 assigned two frequencies for Air Tactics, a primary and secondary.

The listing to the left shows Air Tactics 30-60 (as of 2015), along with which Forests are assigned to which Air Tactics (as of 2013). When scanning, it's best to only program the channels assigned to the forests you are interested in monitoring. Some of these frequencies have other uses throughout Region 5 surprisingly (Air Tactics 47 is MNF Forest Net etc.) so it may be annoying to scan all at once in hopes you might catch an odd assignment. Of course all suggestions go out the window when your area is impacted with multiple fires. If you do catch an odd assignment, please email me, post to the WLF hotlist, or Radio Reference California forum.

Channels marked with ** were no longer listed in my 2015 intel. Keep them around as they may have simply been renamed (as is the case with T49 renamed ot T60). There's been a lot of changes in the federal air frequencies since 2013 and I think they're simply trying new things out until they get a solid, polished solution. Some of those frequencies may have been good ideas in 2013, but proved to have too much interference to a nearby legit user, etc.

Victor Nets (AM)

NorCal (by geographic area)

Primary Secondary Area
118.950 128.250 NW Redding
128.250 118.950 NE Redding
127.325 124.775 SW Redding
124.775 127.325 SE Redding
128.475 134.875 Napa to SLO

SoCal Federal (by base)
135.975 Hemet, Ramona, Portorville, Lancaster, Bishop, Hollister
122.575 Santa Maria, Paso Robles, Columbia
122.425 Fresno

Additional common victor freqs used
118.075 -
122.025 *
122.850 *
122.925 * (unofficial state common)
122.975 *
123.050 *
123.075 *
123.175 -
126.075 -
127.320 -

Victor Nets are utilized when either the airspace over a fire gets pretty busy, and the Air Tactics net becomes overloaded with traffic where it becomes a safety issue to have so many aircraft on a single frequency, or when all the available VHF FM air tacticals are utilized. When too many aircraft are over a fire, Air Attack will assign the helicopters to a Victor Net, keeping fixed wing on the FM tactical or a second Victor. Victor Nets are also assigned on larger campaign fires to free up the VHF FM tacticals in the area to initial attack.

Victor Nets are assigned over Federal fires north of Sacramento by a geographic region, splitting the north state into four quadrants, centered on Redding. For instance, NW Redding would cover most of SHF and all of SRF, and KNF. NE Redding would cover the eastern side of SHF, and all of MDF. SW Redding would cover all of MNF and SE Redding would cover all of LNF, PNF and a little of TNF. An additional pair of victor nets covers the Hwy 101 corridor from southern MNF down to the northern tip of LPF. South of Sacramento, Victor Nets are assigned over Federal incidents by the nearest responding air attack base.

Victor Nets over state fires can also use the above nets, but will often utilize another pre-determined set of AM frequencies (noted by a *), with the most common being 122.925 and 122.975 in NorCal. Victor Nets assigned over State incidents must be approved by the ECC first. Victor freqs with a minus (-) have been used over recent large fires for Helco operations.

Unlike the FM tacticals which each have a name, Victor Nets are referred to by frequency. Pilots like to speak quick and succinct so you may only hear them say "nine two five" which would be 122.925 or "two five seven five" for 122.575.

Extended Attack

173.9875 Air Ground USFS MNF
164.1625 Helco over MNF, A/G over SHF
169.400 Air Attack
170.050 Air to Ground
169.150 Air Ground MNF 2013

When a fire goes into extended attack, typically after the first 24-36hours, or especially when an Incident Command/Management Team is assigned and takes over command of the fire, air attack and/or air-to-ground are assigned frequencies other than the initial attack frequencies. These frequencies technically could come from anywhere in the Federal spectrum between 163-174MHz, but usually once a few are found/granted for a given fire season year, they get reused throughout that season for extended attack. When I find and confirm these extended attack freqs, I'll post them here.

I hope this helps stretch your mind as a scanner hobbyist, and makes you think out of the box. Sometimes you know there should be something talking over the radio, but you just can't find them. Start looking where you least expect them and 9 times out of 10, they'll be there.