Fire Aviation Asset Management

I often hear comments or am asked about my opinion regarding how much better one aircraft type or size is over another. The answer is not simple for the fire service that is steeped in tradition but needs to be based on the reality of the situation at the time. This is where the desired outcome may be dictated by politics, planning, funding, experience, or preference, and where at times all these factors can collide. Having been an air operations branch director (AOBD) on many fires and complexes, I’ll be the first to advocate for all types of aircraft, as they are all conducive to specific mission sets that may be needed on a wildland fire incident.

Every aircraft has a time and place where it may be the most desirable platform for the missions, which are diverse; ranging from cargo (internal and external), suppression, medivac, aerial supervision, reconnaissance, mapping, and surveillance to name a few. Funding is most often the largest factor dictating what will be used and is also where short-sightedness can cost taxpayers and the environment immensely. Just because a platform may be the cheapest to operate and contract for, does not necessarily mean it will be the most effective; it may be all an agency or company can afford due to infrastructure or financial limitations.

As it relates to suppression, once a fire gets established beyond the initial attack, size does matter. Ask any aerial supervisor responsible for ensuring the aviation program is successful. If he or she is honest, the more fluid on target at one time, the more successful the chance of shutting down or slowing a fire. Does this mean bigger is better? Absolutely not, or no agency would be able to afford the diverse fleet needed to support all the needed mission sets.

Aircraft chosen for mission sets can be regionally driven due to infrastructure, politics, topography, and land mass makeup. For instance, the utilization of scoopers would not be conducive to working in an arid climate where appropriate water masses are absent. CAL FIRE chose the S2-T for its ability to fly from short runways in the front country. Regions with a lot of agriculture tend to use single-engine air tankers (SEATS) due to the plethora of them available. The USDA through the USFS is the Federal government’s clearing house for Large Air Tankers (LATS), Very Large Air Tankers (VLATS), and Helitankers to support the whole of federally managed lands throughout the United States.

This is a large expanse of land where a lot of ground needs to be covered and where large loads due to long reload times make sense. For those of us who have coordinated these types of aircraft, we know how effective they can be when large loads are needed especially when the firefighters on the ground are being significantly outpaced by the fire. Regions where water masses are readily available, like Europe and the Mediterranean countries utilize and appreciate the use of scoopers for water bombing, and often haven’t experienced the effect LATS and VLATS may have.

When someone asks me if I like helicopters or airtankers better, or if I think SEATS or LATS are more effective, I know they have been misinformed, most likely have a bias, and do not comprehend the roles each is better suited for. Once again, the answer is predicated on the circumstances. As an AOBD I typically requested every size helicopter in the fleet that would be engaged in specific mission sets, where size, cost, and efficiency are considered. Would I use a Bell Huey engaged as a stand-alone helicopter coordination platform? No, I’d use something smaller that would be more cost-effective to use for the mission and use the Huey for a suppression or cargo roll, where its size would make it more efficient.

The same can be said for SEATS, LATS, and VLATS, although availability often figures into the equation due to the number of these assets available.

I’ve come across papers and documents used to substantiate one type of an asset over another, where bias has played into the equation. For instance, when water delivery is used as a measurement of success compared between fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft, the point and mission roll have been missed. Helicopters are needed and can be used on almost every fire. Once a helicopter is committed, it will typically remain assigned to the fire until containment is reached, and most often until the fire is called out or controlled.

Helicopters can be used in close air support for almost every mission, making them a good all-around platform, however, they lack speed, aren’t easily relocated, and most often work alongside the firefighter on the ground. The suppression role of a helicopter is to deliver water quickly in direct support of those on the ground, pending turn-around times. Conversely, airtankers are typically only used for containment and are then either off to the next fire, or are repositioned for the initial attack of another fire.

Airtankers are nimble and easily relocated, having a huge role in working out in front of fire line personnel who are being outpaced by the fire. Most often air tankers drop retardant, which can either work as a direct suppressant or can work once dried as a retarding agent, buying firefighters time on the ground. It is due to the speed and range of LATS and VLATS that Federal agencies in the US only use retardant in these platforms, which can quickly be diverted to be engaged in any fire regardless of its burning phase or operational tactics.

Dan Reese
Dan Reese
Dan Reese is a CAL FIRE veteran having served 20 years in the agency. Dan then went on to become the CEO of Global Super Tanker and now heads International Wilfire Consulting Group.

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