Aviation Safety in Wildland Firefighting

Airtanker aircraft drops retardant on wildfire in California.

Airtanker aircraft drops retardant on wildfire in California.

Airplanes and helicopters are integral to the management and suppression of wildfires, often operating in high-risk, low-altitude environments. These aircraft are used to deliver equipment and supplies, deploy and transport firefighters, conduct reconnaissance, scout and direct operations, and deliver fire retardant or water. During the past decade, the United States has experienced an increase in the size, frequency, and severity of wildfires, likely attributable to buildup of flammable vegetation, decline in snowpack, and human development in wildland areas. If these conditions continue, more fire response workers will be needed, and the demand on aviation to support these efforts will increase.

During 2000–2013, a total of 298 wildland firefighter fatalities were identified in the United States, averaging 21 fatalities per year. Among these, 78 (26%) were caused by activities associated with aviation. The 78 deaths occurred during 41 separate events involving 42 firefighting aircraft; 23 (55%) aircraft were fixed wing, and 19 (45%) were helicopters. Three firefighting aircraft were involved in midair collisions.

Fighting wildfires often requires coordination between federal, state, tribal, and local agencies, each having different missions, legal responsibilities, and authorities. While some agencies own their own aircraft, others rely on contracts to provide the fleet necessary for managing wildfires. Training programs, policies, individual qualifications, experience levels, crew abilities and knowledge, resources, and support structure vary among the different agencies that often work together during these hazardous operations.

Using the most stringent safety guidelines available for each activity will ensure the highest level of protection for all workers. Crew resource management comprises a range of skills, knowledge, behaviors, and actions that can be applied to firefighters and firefighting operations. The Forest Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, and other agencies have incorporated crew resource management system elements (e.g., situational awareness, communication, decision-making, and risk management) that are specifically applicable to wildland firefighting safety. Incorporating such an approach to all firefighting operations might lead to increased efficiency, effectiveness, and safety.

For more information on aviation safety in wildland firefighting, please read the article Aviation-Related Wildland Firefighter Fatalities — United States, 2000–2013

Page last reviewed: November 29, 2016