Wildfires Effect On Aviation, Part 2

Missoula Aerial Fire Depot smokejumpers
When the siren alerts crews at the Missoula Aerial Fire Depot, smokejumpers sprint to the ready room to don their special protective gear. The goal is to be airborne within six minutes.
Credit: Patrick Veillette

Wildfire smoke can have a significant impact on the efficiency of air traffic operations, and contains compounds that are toxic to breathe and damaging to turbine engines.

It is not uncommon for firefighting authorities to request Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) in response to the aviation safety need for separation of aircraft for disaster or incident activities. A TFR applies to an area of airspace (defined both laterally and vertically) that has been temporarily or partially closed to non-participatory aircraft for a specified period of time. Flight restrictions may be requested 

Regulation 14 CFR 91.137(a)(2), titled “TFR in the Vicinity of Disaster/Hazard Areas” is the rule for TFRs over wildfires. This is the most common of TFRs for land management agencies that contend with wildland fires. Designated disaster relief aircraft are operated under the direction of the official in charge of the on scene emergency-response activity. These may include helicopters, air tankers, air attack and lead planes, smokejumper and infrared aircraft. 

Information about TFR’s is available online at http://tfr.faa.gov/tfr2/list.html

The agencies that utilize aerial firefighting aircraft are serious about minimizing potential airborne conflicts. It can be deadly if an aircraft not under the control of the incident command system encroaches on the TFR. Any personal aircraft, even a tiny drone, can cause a serious or fatal accident if it collides with firefighting aircraft. For this reason, if any intruder aircraft or drones are spotted near a wildfire, all firefighting aircraft over that incident must land due to safety concerns. This prolongs firefighting operations.  

In many cases, wildfires become larger when aircraft are not able to drop fire retardant and water, nor monitor wildfires from above. Furthermore, the grounding of aerial firefighting aircraft eliminates a potentially important airborne source of vital tactical information to firefighters, placing them at heightened risk. Homes and other values at risk could burn needlessly, firefighters or others could be injured, or worst of all, a fatal accident could occur. 

“It may be hard for individuals and organizations who aren’t familiar with wildfire suppression operations to understand why it’s so dangerous for them to operate a unmanned aircraft system (UAS) within or near wildfires,” said Dan Thorpe, district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Southwest Oregon District. “Firefighting aircraft typically fly at about the same, or a lower altitude than hobbyists or recreationists fly UAS, often in smoky, windy and turbulent conditions. Safety depends on knowing what other aircraft are operating in the airspace and where they are at all times and this is compromised by the presence of unauthorized aircraft, including UAS.”

Drones have become particularly problematic to aerial firefighting operations in recent years.  “Air tanker operations were suspended on two incidents in California recently due to drones intruding on restricted airspace,” added Rob MacWhorter, Forest Supervisor for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. “We urge the public not to impact our suppression activities with these machines.”

Guidance provided by fire managers with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest reminds operators of civilian aircraft, including UAS devices, to avoid flying within 5 miles of a wildfire, regardless of whether firefighting aircraft are visible. Air tankers and firefighting helicopters begin low-altitude approaches to wildfires from several miles away and their pilots are unlikely to see a small UAS device in the air. A collision could cause catastrophic damage to a helicopter’s rotors or a retardant bomber’s propellers. A small UAS could also strike the engine of a retardant bomber that, at such low altitude, could result in a crash.

Per 43 CFR 9212.1(f), it is illegal to resist or interfere with the efforts of firefighter(s) to extinguish a fire. Doing so can result in a significant fine and/or a mandatory court appearance.   No trip or photos are worth the consequences. 

Busy Aircrews Over Wildfires

Wildfire incident viewed from above the Blackfoot River in western Montana.
Wildfire viewed from above the Blackfoot River in western Montana. Credit: Patrick Veillette

The vast majority of wildfires are not protected by an overlaying TFR. The airspace over a wildfire can get very busy in a hurry, and hundreds of near mid-air collisions between firefighting aircraft and general aviation and military aircraft have occurred in the past. Whether the airspace over a wildfire is protected by a TFR or not, all pilots should avoid the vicinity of any wildfire for their own safety and for the safety of the firefighters.
The busy flight crews over fire incidents are likely monitoring many different frequencies.  Perhaps an Air Attack Group supervisor is orbiting high above the fire acting as an air traffic controller orchestrating the influx of lead planes reconnoitering a proposed drop path for retardant prior to exposing heavily-laden air tankers to the hazards of the route. Simultaneously, air tankers might be orbiting nearby waiting for clearance to follow the lead plane for retardant drops as helicopters are dropping water buckets or moving people.  This mix can also include smokejumper ships waiting to drop smokejumpers and then the para-cargo with the critical equipment for the jumpers. 
The communication workload within a smokejumper aircraft over a fire incident often include a half-dozen different channels. It begins with the flight crew communicating with each other;  with the “spotter” in the back (the equivalent in the military would be a jumpmaster and mission commander); monitoring the communications between the jumpers on the ground and/or ground forces with the aircraft. We would also monitor the VHF frequency with other firefighting aircraft near the fire to make certain our activities were staying clear of each other. We might be listening to ATC if the fire incident is near busy airspace. We will be monitoring the dispatch center responsible for coordinating all firefighting activities in the area. They can have important information, such as informing us that other air tankers are headed toward our fire, or that after dropping jumpers we are to proceed to another fire incident. And of course, we had the “Guard” (emergency) channel to monitor. That adds up to 7 different communication channels that we tried to balance, each possibly having a vital piece of information. All of this incoming information was often too much for my limited cognitive abilities.

From our aerial perch, we have views of important changes in wind, weather or fire activity that ground crews may not, and the trained eyes of our smokejumpers and pilots to warn crews of the threatening changes. When wildfire activity is intense, these channels will be saturated with important communications.  There were instances within the jump ship that the copilot and I would have to communicate via hand signals at times.
The bottom line is to avoid flying near a smoke column, even if it isn’t within a TFR.  It is likely that aerial firefighting aircraft will converge on the incident. The presence of an aircraft not involved in the fire suppression effort is a serious safety hazard and distraction to the flight crews of the aerial firefighting aircraft.  

Not An Easy Issue to Resolve
There is legislation proposed in the U.S. Congress called the “Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act of 2021.” Its goal is to prevent catastrophic wildland fires by establishing a commission to study and recommend wildland fire prevention, mitigation, suppression, management and rehabilitation policies for the federal government.  The size and complexity of the problem is mind-boggling, and for each special interest group proposing their “simple” answer, 10 opposing groups will bring in their subject matter experts to expose the fallacies. There are no easy answers to this problem.  

There is one certainty for the near term. Wildfire seasons will continue to challenge firefighters with more violent wildfires that consume previously unthinkable amounts of acreage, for longer parts of the year. Those of us who value the safety of our wildland firefighters have much to be concerned about.

See Wildfires Effect On Aviation, Part 1: https://aviationweek.com/business-aviation/wildfires-effect-aviation-pa…

Patrick Veillette, Ph.D.

Upon his retirement as a non-routine flight operations captain from a fractional operator in 2015, Dr. Veillette had accumulated more than 20,000 hours of flight experience in 240 types of aircraft—including balloons, rotorcraft, sea planes, gliders, war birds, supersonic jets and large commercial transports. He is an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University.