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Wildfire at night, behind silhouetted forest, and reflected in a river.
Main articles

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National Interagency Fire Center
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Tactics & Equipment

Incident Command System
Aerial firefighting
Controlled burn
Firebreak  · Fire trail
Fire lookout tower
Fire-retardant gel
Fire fighting foam
Fire retardant  · MAFFS
Helicopter bucket  · Driptorch


Handcrew  · Hotshots
Helitack  · Smokejumper
Rappeller  · Engine crew


List of wildfires
Glossary of wildfire terms

Aerial firefighting is the use of aircraft and other aerial resources to combat wildfires. The types of aircraft used include fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Smokejumpers and rappellers are also classified as aerial firefighters, delivered to the fire by parachute from a variety of fixed-wing aircraft, or rappelling from helicopters. Chemicals used to fight fires may include water, water enhancers such as foams and gels, and specially formulated fire retardants.[1]



A wide variety of terminology has been used in the popular media for the aircraft (and methods) used in aerial firefighting. The terms Airtanker or air tanker generally refer to fixed-wing aircraft; "airtanker" is used in official documentation.[2][3]

Air attack is an industry term used for the actual application of aerial resources, both fixed-wing and rotorcraft, on a fire, although colloquially, "air attack" is also a muddled up term coming from “air tac” which is in reference to air tactical group supervisor, who is in a spotter plane that is charged with directing the use of aerial resources. Initial attack refers to the first-response of aerial assets to suppress a fire before it grows out of control; aviation assets can usually respond to a reported blaze much more quickly than ground-based resources can. Extended attack refers to the continued use of aerial and other resources on an out-of-control fire, primarily to assist ground units in the establishment of firelines in advance of the fire.[3]


A wide variety of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are used for aerial firefighting. In 2003, it was reported that "The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management own, lease, or contract for nearly 1,000 aircraft each fire season, with annual expenditures in excess of US$250 million in recent years".[4]



Kern County (California) Fire Department Bell 205 dropping water during a training exercise at the Mojave Spaceport
S-64 Erickson Air-Crane photographed at Ioannina airport, Greece

Helicopters may be fitted with tanks or carry buckets. Buckets are usually filled by submerging in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, or portable tanks. The most popular of the buckets is the flexible Bambi Bucket. Tanks may be filled on the ground or water may be siphoned from lakes or reservoirs through a hanging snorkel. Popular firefighting helicopters include variants of the Bell 204 and the Erickson S-64 Aircrane helitanker, which features a sea snorkel for filling while in flight.


Airtankers or water bombers are fixed-wing aircraft fitted with tanks that can be filled on the ground at an air tanker base or, in the case of flying boats and amphibious aircraft, by skimming water from lakes, reservoirs, or large rivers.

Tanker 910 during a drop demonstration in December, 2006

Various aircraft have been used over the years for firefighting. Though World War II-era bombers were for a long time the mainstay of the aerial firefighting fleet, and are still in use[5] newer purpose-built tankers are coming online. The smallest are the Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs). These are agricultural sprayers that generally drop about 800 gallons of water or retardant. An example is the *Airtractor AT-802F, which can deliver around 3000lt of water or fire retardant solution each drop. Medium aircraft include the S-2 Tracker (retrofitted with turboprop engines as the S-2T) as used by the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (CDF), as well as Conair Group Inc. of Abbotsford, British Columbia, while the Douglas DC-4, the DC-7, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, P-2V Neptune, P-3 Orion and others have been used as heavy tankers.

A Mars bomber, one of the largest water bombers still flying in the world.

The largest aerial firefighter currently in use is a Boeing 747 aerial firefighter, known as the Evergreen Supertanker that can carry 24,000 gallons fed by a pressurized drop system.The Supertanker entered service for the first time in 2009, fighting a fire in Cuenca, Spain.[6] The tanker made its first American operation on August 31, 2009 at the Oak Glen Fire. [7][8]

The next largest aerial firefighters currently in use include two converted Martin Mars flying boats in British Columbia (one of which was brought to southern California in September 2007 to help battle the wildfires there), carrying 7,200 U.S. gallons of water or fire retardant each, and Tanker 910, a converted McDonnell Douglas DC-10 that can carry 12,000 gallons of water or retardant. The Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations operates convertible-to-cargo IL-76 airtankers that can carry up to 15,000 gallons but have been operating with 11,000 gallon tanking systems, and a few of Beriev Be-200 amphibians.

A PZL M-18 Dromader drops water near Mobridge, SD

Bombardier's Dash 8 Q Series aircraft are the basis for two new ventures. Cascade Aerospace has converted two pre-owned Q400s to act as part-time water bomber [9] and part-time transport for France's Sécurité Civile, one of which is registered F-ZBMC,[10] while Neptune Aviation is converting a pre-owned Q300 as a prototype to augment their P2V aircraft.

PBY Catalina flying boat

Similar in configuration to the World War II–era PBY Catalina, the Canadair CL-215 Scooper, and Bombardier CL-415 SuperScooper are designed and built specifically for firefighting. The "Super Scoopers" are not common in the United States where only 2 operate seasonally in southern California. Los Angeles County leases two CL-415s[11] from the Province of Quebec during the fall when the Santa Ana winds are at their worst. 6 American owned CL-215s operate for various State and Federal agencies. Critics of scoopers in the US claim that there is not enough suitable water in fire prone states. CL-215s have been employed with success in North Carolina, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Washington, Alaska, Northern Idaho, and Montana.

French "Sécurité Civile" owns the entire Canadian CL-xx series, a handful of Grumman Trackers and some Russian Mil Mi-6 helicopters. Their pilots are usually recruited amongst the best pilots from "l'Armée de l'Air", usually from "Aéronavale" (Navy pilots on aircraft carriers) or acrobatic teams like "La Patrouille de France". It is a highly risked job that requires very skilled aerial fighters.

Another amphibian is Russian Beriev Be-200. It can carry a maximum payload of about 3,170 gallons (12,000 litres) of water, making "scoops" in suitable stretches of water in 14 seconds. It was successfully used to fight fires in the southern European countries such as Greece and Portugal.


The Lead Plane function directs the activities of the airtankers by both verbal target descriptions and by physically leading the airtankers on the drop run. The O-2 Skymaster and OV-10 Bronco have both been used as spotter and lead plane platforms. The Beechcraft Baron was long used as a lead plane or air attack ship, but most were retired in 2003; more common now is the Beechcraft King Air, used as an air attack ship and lead plane.

Fleet grounding

In the United States, most of these aircraft are privately owned and contracted to government agencies, and the National Guard and the U.S. Marines also maintain fleets of firefighting aircraft. On May 10, 2004, The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) suddenly announced that they were cancelling contracts with operators of 33 heavy airtankers. They cited liability concerns and an inability to safely manage the fleet after the wing failure and resulting crash of a C-130A Hercules in California and a PB4Y-2 in Colorado during the summer of 2002. Both aged aircraft broke up in flight due to catastrophic fatigue cracks at the wing roots. After subsequent third-party examination and extensive testing of all USFS contracted heavy airtankers, three companies were awarded contracts and now maintain a combined fleet of 23 aircraft.

Fire retardant

A MAFFS-equipped Air National Guard C-130 Hercules drops fire retardant on wildfires in southern California

Borate salts were used in the past to fight wildfires but were found to sterilize the soil, were toxic to animals, and are now prohibited.[12] Newer retardants use ammonium sulfate or ammonium polyphosphate with attapulgite clay thickener or diammonium phosphate with a guar gum derivative thickener. These are not only less toxic but act as fertilizers to help the regrowth of plants after the fire. Fire retardants often contain wetting agents, preservatives and rust inhibitors and are colored red with ferric oxide or fugitive color to mark where they have been dropped. Brand names of fire retardants for aerial application include Fire-Trol and Phos-Chek.

Some water-dropping aircraft carry tanks of a guar gum derivative to thicken the water and reduce runoff.

Tactics and capabilities

A helicopter dips its bucket into a river to drop water on a wildfire in California

Helicopters can hover over the fire and accurately drop water or retardant. The S-64 Helitanker has microprocessor-controlled doors on its tank. The doors are controlled based on the area to be covered and wind conditions. Fixed-wing aircraft must make a pass and drop water or retardant like a bomber. Spotter (Air Tactical Group Supervisor) aircraft often orbit the fire at a higher altitude to coordinate the efforts of the smoke jumper, helicopter, media, and retardant-dropping aircraft; while lead planes fly low-level ahead of the airtankers to mark the trajectory for the drop, and ensure overall safety for both ground-based and aerial firefighters.

Water is often not dropped directly on flames because its effect is short-lived. Fire retardants are typically dropped ahead of the moving fire or along its edge and may remain effective for two or more days. This can create artificial firebreaks where the terrain is too rugged or remote for ground crews to cut fireline.

Helicopters are also used to deliver firefighters or ignite backfires and controlled burns. A driptorch slung beneath the helicopter (helitorch) can be used for this purpose. Another device called a Delayed Aerial Ignition Device (DAID) can be used, which shoots a stream of flaming "ping-pong balls" into the forest. The small plastic spheres which contain potassium permanganate are individually injected with ethylene glycol or glycerine just before they are ejected from the aircraft. This method's delayed redox exothermic reaction, which results in vigorous fire soon after mixing the chemicals,[13] poses less of a danger to the helicopter than transporting burning materials. The ping-pong ball system works best in continuous fuels or in areas where a mosaic burn pattern is desired.

Aerial firefighting is almost always used in conjunction with ground-based efforts, as aircraft are only one weapon in the firefighting arsenal. However, there have been cases of aircraft extinguishing fires long before ground crews were able to reach them.

Some firefighting aircraft can refill their tanks in mid-flight, by flying down to skim the surface of any body of water. One example is the Bombardier 415. This is particularly useful in rural areas where flying back to an airbase for refills may take too much time.

Urban legends about aerial firefighting

  • An urban legend arises sometimes about a water bomber, or a helicopter with a dangling water bucket, scooping up a scuba diver and dumping him on a wildfire site. Urban legend debunking site reports there are no proven cases of this happening in reality.[14] Also, this urban legend was tested and busted by the Myth Busters television show.

See also


  1. ^ "USDA Forest Service Wildland Fire Chemicals". Retrieved 2008-11-13. 
  2. ^ Transcript of USA vs Fuchs, case 9810173, 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals
  3. ^ a b The popular media also frequently use the terms water bomber, fire bomber or borate bomber. Helicopters may be used to drop retardant or water (helitankers, or rotor-wing aircraft with buckets) or as personnel delivery (helitack) or as cargo and personnel transport. "Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation Operations 2007, Chapter 17" (PDF). National Interagency Fire Center. Retrieved 2007-08-31. 
  4. ^ "Statement of Larry Hamilton National Director, Office of Fire and Aviation, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, National Interagency Fire Center Oversight Hearing: Blue Ribbon Panel Report and Aerial Firefighting Safety Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests". March 26, 2003. Retrieved 2007-09-27. 
  5. ^ Giant air tanker drops water on Mount Wilson, Associated Press story, September 1, 2009, published in AT&T on-line news
  6. ^ ABC - El 'superavión' bombero no fue efectivo en incendio Serranía de Cuenca (in Spanish)
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Q400 Airtanker Conversion
  10. ^ Photo of the De Havilland Canada DHC-8-402Q(MR) Dash 8 at the Marseilles-Provence Airport in July 2005 on Retrieved 2010-03-12
  11. ^ September 1998 issue of WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER Magazine. Retrieved 2010-03-12
  12. ^ "UDSA Forest Service Specification 5100-304c Long-Term Retardant, Wildland Firefighting". June 1, 2007. p. 2. Retrieved 2008-11-24. 
  13. ^ "Reaction of Potassium Permanganate and Glycerine". Retrieved 2008-11-24. 
  14. ^ Mikkelson, Barbara (2007-01-20), Corpus Crispy,, retrieved 2010-02-03 

External links


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