The role of aerial units in wildland firefighting

31 August 2023

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USA – Throughout fire season, aerial units like scooper planes, Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3 helicopters have been utilized in a variety of different ways in order to assist in dealing with wildfires.

The Lookout fire, currently burning near Blue River, has a total of 11 helicopters assigned to it. These range from Type 1 helicopters dedicated to reconnaissance, and transporting crews in and around the fire, Type 2 helicopters that are primarily used to repel fire fighters within the fireline, and Type 3 helicopters which drop water onto the burning fires.

Type 3 helicopters come in two forms: Helicopters equipped with a helibucket capable of carrying thousands of gallons of water, and helicopters with a built in tank that can take in hundreds of gallons of water, or fire retardant if necessary.

“With a tank system, they can fly much faster, due to not having the drag of the bucket, and they usually [have] a larger capability [when it comes to dealing with the fire},” said Patrick McPhee, an aerial fire fighter currently assigned to the Lookout Fire. “They can also fly retardant, the red mud you can see them dropping. That’s mainly to slow the fire down, it is not a suppressant, but it’ll aid the ground resources in getting in there.”

As impressive as these units are, McPhee says that they aren’t there to put out the fires themselves. In fact, these units are usually used to help clear a path for ground crews to get within the fire, and begin cleaning up the burnt area.

“Aviation resources are not putting the fire out,” McPhee said. “You have to have boots on the ground, and there’s a lot of people out there with varying resources. Engines, hand crews, tenders, that’s the main firefighting force. We are just a tool in this system here that’s helping support them.”

You can learn more about these aerial units, the training aerial fire fighters undergo, and how these planes are deployed at the YouTube video below.

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