Wildland fires in California, US, have brought together a fleet of over 90 aerial firefighting aircraft, including DC-10s, 747s, Be-200s and S-70A Black Hawks, among others.
“This is the most risky flying we will see just about anywhere including combat,” said Colonel Brian Allen, an operations group commander for the Air National Guard, which is one of the organisations currently fighting wildfires across California. He has flown hundreds of combat missions and oversees all flight operations from the Port Hueneme Air Base. “Some of our folks are former Navy pilots that have landed on aircraft carriers that have been pitching in the dark of night and they say that aerial firefighting is even more dangerous,” Allen said.
In 2014, a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in the previous three years, there had been 298 wildland firefighter fatalities, around 26 per cent of which were associated with aerial firefighting efforts. The Air National Guard was involved in one such incidents, and has enhanced its training standards and changed its methods of operation as a result.
Captain Nathan Southwick is one of the pilots flying missions over Ventura County in California, and he commented on the risks they are taking: “We are doing everything we do in combat except we are doing it closer to the ground, in most cases we are doing it heavier and we have a lot more terrain to deal with.” He added: “In my opinion it is the most dangerous thing you can do with a military aircraft asset.”