Wildland fires are managed from the air as well as the ground. Maybe you’ve witnessed the dramatic attack originating from above: a lumbering C-130 flying a couple hundred feet above the ground, dropping a load of 3,000 gallons of reddish-pink retardant; or a quick, nimble single engine air tanker (SEAT), zeroing in for a fast drop of 800 gallons of water onto a flaming front.
Aviation resources include a wide range of aircraft, almost all of which is privately contracted. As with virtually all other aspects of wildland fire management, the agencies share responsibility and aviation resources. The USFS is the lead agency for contracting and managing the fleet of large airtankers (LAT) and very large (VLAT) airtankers and most multi-engine water scoopers; while the BLM manages the SEAT fleet and most single engine water scoopers (fire bosses). But that’s only part of the aviation picture. The USFS, the BLM, the BIA and the NPS and the USFWS contract or own other types of aircraft, including smokejumper delivery planes; aerial supervision aircraft; transport and utility aircraft; and all sizes of helicopters used for water drops, mapping firelines and getting firefighters from one spot to the next. Federal agencies are responsible for managing 200 to 300 wildland fire aircraft.
The aerial firefighting force can be expanded through local and state agency resources, or through “call-when-needed” contracts. Other than the airtanker base and the occasional smokejumper aircraft, air attack plane or transport jet, you won’t often see many aircraft at NIFC. Most aircraft are positioned at airports across the country in advance of expected wildfire activity. It only makes sense to place these vital assets closest to where they’re likely to be needed.
What you will find at NIFC are staff in charge of developing and managing aircraft contracts and top national aviation managers who provide leadership, policy oversight and guidance, safety and airspace management, and overall supervision for the nation’s wildland fire aviation effort.