A question posted recently on Quora asked, “How effective is aerial firefighting?” Josh Emmons, a wildland pilot, gave his opinion on the topic below. Check it out and add your own thoughts in the comments.
One of the most important things to understand about aerial firefighting is that dropping water or retardant is not usually able to or intended to "put out the fire." In my experience, the most common goals of aerial firefighting are:
To slow the fire's progress, allowing ground forces to get into position and/or take action on the fire such as completing a hose lay, cutting some indirect line, conducting a burnout, etc.
To lower the intensity of the fire directly ahead of ground forces so that they can construct direct line.
Both goals can be achieved through the use of water or retardant from both fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft. In general, the fixed-wing tankers dropping retardant ahead of the fire is the more common delaying tactic while helicopters directly supporting ground forces with water bucketing operations is the more common intensity reduction tactic.
When you see tankers painting a ridge top with retardant, and a few hours later, the fire burns through that area and progresses down the other side. It's easy to think that this was a complete waste of time, money, effort and risk. But it's possible that it did delay the fire long enough to provide a measurable benefit to folks on the ground. It maybe only gave them time to evacuate the residents from the area or do a little more prep around houses, but that's a big benefit to those folks.
On the other hand, there are times when the conditions will drive the fire right through whatever obstacle, man made or natural, that stands in it's way, and sometimes air operations are continued in those conditions. Depending on where and how you're using those resources, their work can be ineffective. However, there are two reasons to keep air ops going in the face of these conditions.
There are often good uses still, such as preventing the fire from flanking laterally or point protection around structures to help the structure protection folks.
If you have the aircraft in the air, you are ready to take advantage of a favorable change in conditions.
In the role of directly supporting ground forces, helicopters and tankers (especially SEATs) can be very effective. In that role, the pilot's job is to cool down the fire line directly adjacent to or ahead of the hand crews and bulldozers cutting direct fire line.
While a water drop may only reduce the flame lengths and intensity for a short time, this gives crews time to work in an area that would otherwise be too hot for them, and little by little, the line gets tied in. However, when conditions get too intense, even a heavy helicopter dropping 2,000 gallons of water at a time can't be effective. Usually the flight crews will choose to return to the helibase rather than continue to work in these situations, although there may be reasons for them to continue working in and attempt to delay the fire's progress.
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