Industry voice: Aerial firefighting with single engine airtankers (SEATs)
As the fire season extends and becomes more unpredictable, a rapid initial attack is needed to contain and control the spread before it becomes unmanageable – Air Tractor has a unique and cost-effective solution for this growing problem
This year, Texas aircraft manufacturer Air Tractor is producing a record number of its AT-802F single engine air tanker (SEAT) aircraft. Air Tractor President Jim Hirsch notes that demand for the aerial firefighting craft has steadily increased as fire seasons have become longer and more destructive. Greater numbers of these airplanes are being operated to battle wildfires globally – they can now be observed in the skies above Australia, the US, Canada, South America, Spain, Portugal, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.
“Wildfire seasons are super-sizing,” said Hirsch. “They are becoming larger and of longer duration. Fighting these fires requires large, cooperative regional efforts and major firefighting resource commitments.”
“One trend is clear,” he said. “Fire events in recent years have reinforced the effectiveness of the rapid initial attack strategy. When SEATs are deployed immediately, they can knock down small fires that might otherwise become campaign fires.” Hirsch sees this as a driving factor in the increased demand for the Air Tractor AT-802F.
Striking quickly, dampening fires when they’re still small and staying on top of the fire until ground support arrives are the hallmarks of rapid initial attack aircraft. “This isn’t a new idea,” Hirsch explained. “We’ve advocated the strategy for decades. It works. It’s the primary purpose of the AT-802F. The sooner an air tanker arrives over a fire and slows its progress, the greater likelihood of quick containment. It’s why we emphasize rapid initial attack. We’re talking response times in minutes rather than hours or days. As one of our customers has said, ‘It’s easier to spit on a match than to wait and fight a large fire later.’”
Rapid initial attack
The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has demonstrated how rapid initial attack leads to favorable, cost-effective outcomes. Following a disastrous fire year, the Washington DNR positioned SEATs around the state so that an aircraft could reach any fire within 30 minutes.
Fire seasons have become longer and more destructive
“The policy was to launch aircraft the moment smoke was spotted,” said Hirsch. “And their goal was to contain 90 per cent of the fires to less than 10 acres.” The strategy was a resounding success. In 2021, more than 98 per cent of the fires were suppressed during initial attack, and 94 per cent burned less than 10 acres, reported Hirsch. Dollars that would have been used for wildfire suppression were freed to focus on forest health programs. “We’re seeing this rapid initial attack approach successfully replicated worldwide,” he added.
More than 98 per cent of the fires were suppressed during initial attack
In Spain and Portugal, where hundreds of fires break out every summer, more than 99 per cent are extinguished on the same day by utilizing rapid initial attack with SEATs supporting the ground crews. A typical sortie involves two AT-802F SEATs, loaded with water, patrolling areas with the highest potential risk of fire. The stakes can be high, and being on quick on the scene is essential to contain these fires, Hirsch explained: “It’s been said that 800 gallons (3,100L) delivered within the first 30 minutes is more effective than 1,800 gallons (6,800L) dropped three hours later, or even 10,000 gallons (37,850L) 10 hours later.”
Across Europe, wildfires have been a growing problem. For the past several years, Greece has fought wildfires with leased aircraft, including AT-802F Fire Boss amphibious water scooping water bomber. In November 2022, the Hellenic Republic announced a €145 million tender for 36 new single-engine turboprop fixed-wing amphibious aircraft and it’s likely that the request for proposal will be fulfilled with the Air Tractor AT-802F Fire Boss.