The Importance of Aircraft Wildfire Suppression

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Wildfires are often unpredictable, fast-spreading, and difficult for ground crews to fight alone. The physical and mental demands of wildfire fighting are undeniable, especially when every second counts. Wildfire suppression by aircraft is an integral part of firefighting tactics, leading to faster containment of deadly flames.

What kinds of aircraft are used in wildfire suppression?

A variety of aircraft are put into play when it comes to fighting wildfires and each has a specific use depending on the situation. Here are a few of the most popular aircraft used to fight wildfires, and their best uses:

Air tankers

Also referred to as water bombers, these are fixed-wing aircraft that make use of natural water sources, like lakes and large rivers, to fight wildfires. The amphibious versions of these aircraft actually skim water resources while in flight. The first fixed-wing firefighting aircraft hit the scene following World War II, and many of those design elements for the first model are still in use today. Some of the newer firefighting aircraft with fixed wings are capable of dropping around 800 gallons of water or retardant at a time. The largest of this class of firefighting aircraft is the Evergreen Supertanker, a Boeing 747, and it can carry 24,000 gallons of water or retardant at one time. It flew in 2009 to fight a fire in Spain and aided the deadly Oak Glen Fire in the U.S. However, it has been decommissioned.

During the summer of 2012, the U.S. Government signed contracts to bring on a new generation of air tankers, some of which can carry 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of retardant or water. Some of that is stored internally. These aircraft began rolling out in 2013 and there are still some scheduled to debut in 2015.


These helicopters have either buckets or tanks that deliver water to wildfire sites. The tanks or buckets are generally dipped in or attached to natural water resources, like ponds or rivers, and then that water is transported to the location of the fire and used. Some of the more advanced helitankers also have a foam cannon that is mounted on the front of the aircraft to fight fires.

Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems

The U.S. Forest Service has eight of these portable fire retardant delivery systems that are simply attached to military aircrafts, transforming them to air tankers when necessary. These slide-in MAFFs have the capability to carry 3,000 gallons of water or retardant to fires. It only takes about 5 seconds to discharge the water or retardant, and only about 12 minutes to refill. Through an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Defense, more effective wildfire fighting is possible, and extra aircraft can be called in when emergencies arise.

Why are wildfire-fighting aircraft so effective?

There are several reasons fighting wildfires from the air is impactful. The first is that fighting from the air gives a much wider scope of what is actually happening with the fire. When you fight a wildfire on the ground, you can’t see much except the destruction in front of you. Both ground and air firefighting are important, but using aircraft helps gauge the status of a fire and its reach.

Another reason firefighting aircraft are so essential is because of their carrying capacity. Having the ability to dump 800 gallons of water or retardant (and sometimes much more) in a matter of minutes gives firefighters a distinct advantage against the raging flames.

It’s important to remember that wildfire fighting from the air only works if there is strong ground crew support. Together, the eyes in the air and on the ground can attack and suppress wildfires faster than if they worked alone. 

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