Air tanker drops are often useless for fighting wildfires, but politicians order them because they make good TV

I don’t use twitter and I honestly can’t tell if this is real or parody. The world is most definitely in the Twilight Zone.

I wonder, if it is just for the footage, wouldn’t a drone operator, that has been trained with the firefighters and other troops, make more spectacular images and be a lot cheaper?


This summer the mountains behind our place caught fire. Helicopters were amazingly effective in the immediate response and as support for a foot team airdropoed in. We had an AT 802 in a couple of times to put big and effective hits at the right time and place. There was a 737 on standby, but only to be deployed as a last resort if the weather changed. All very effective if used at the right place and time as a team effort.


Basically every Mediterranean country has a fleet of firefighting aircraft operated either by its air force or by another government agency like the French Sécurité Civile, which doesn’t really fit with the idea that aerial firefighting is a purely American phenomenon or a boondoggle to funnel cash to private contractors.


OK. Aussie chiming in who has gone through WAY too many bushfires.
First: We don’t really use the flame retardants with our airdrops. We just use water.

Air drops of water are fantastic for breaking a fire front. Sometimes you’re not trying to put out the fire, you’re just trying to stop it building momentum. The scariest thing ever is a firefront that has momentum. It builds fire tornadoes. (Google them. They are hideous things). Further, with a fast enough front it starts throwing embers kilometers ahead. This makes fighting it even harder.

The purpose of air attack on the fire is not to put it out (sometimes if you’re lucky you can put out a spot fire in a remote area). But to break the front so the ground crew can do their work.

They are most definitely not useless and it’s why we spend so much money on getting the cranes in from America. (We send you our firies during your fire season and you send us the air-support during ours. It’s win win all round).
The big thing is, it’s a situational tool that needs to be used correctly. Dumping the water into the middle of a blaze does SFA.
Breaking a front can turn the tide in a catastrophic situation.

However, I will say that ‘doing air drops for publicity’ can lead to greater damage. Where the pilots go (under instructions from command) tend not to have the best shots for front page. When you’re doing something just for a front page photo, you’re gonna create problems.


Yes, another Australian here. I even used to work for a major fire service. I don’t think such dismissive statements can be applied universally. That’s why the firefighting aircraft fleet has increased substantially in the past 10 years or so, particularly here in Victoria. Sure, the operating costs are enormous, but that’s offset by the impact of firefighting aircraft. As you say, they are extremely valuable in extinguishing or breaking up firefronts. Although we do use fire retardants frequently, sorry.

Also @Brainspore you sometimes hear about ‘aerial appliances’ being used in urban firefighting. But they’re the trucks with cherry-pickers on them, not aircraft. So there’s bit of a terminology issue, I think.


Honestly, I struggle to figure out a single thing Trump really understands.

How to use media to his advantage.


Wasn’t aware of fire-retardant. (I’m WAYYYYY out of the game… )
Do they use that from the choppers (like Elvis. That should give you an indicator of where I am being an Aussie)


Another Victorian here, and for full disclosure, a former volunteer firefighter. I’ve only ever seen water used (although maybe with Class A foam, which is basically a modest surfactant), and usually to break a front before an afternoon wind change. Admittedly my evidence is of the “n=1” flavour, but i’ve seen helicopter drops make enough of a difference that we could safely get trucks to the edge, where we wouldn’t have dared before.


Maybe my faith in Smokey Bear is just not strong enough; but the idea of deliberately dropping a compound where the cyanide is added to keep it from corroding the storage tanks onto a fire in the name of forest preservation seems a trifle insane.

I can at least understand the willingness to use alarming halogenated compounds in military marine and aviation situations; toxicologists making nervous noises in the distance probably seem like the lesser evil when everyone is trapped right next to the fire and no matter where it starts it’s a few minutes away from either the fuel bunkers, the munition storage, or both; but in a forest?

Those are quite used to burning down periodically and good at shrugging it off… Plus, of course your Dutchy tends to have significant territorial claims and diverse subjects therein.


My read of “for the footage” was “footage of the airplane dropping copious payload into the fire” not just “footage of the fire”.

If you just want pictures of the fire, drones are definitely the cheaper choice(and I’d imagine that at least some are in use to provide data to firefighters, given the poor visibility and sometimes alarmingly quick movement of large fires); but if you want a big damn plane roaring low overhead and dropping a huge impressive cloud of material a cheapie quadcopter or little RC camera plane isn’t even going to register.

(1) " The private forces are offset by military aircraft" - Cory
There are a few ANG planes that do airdrops. The vast majority are civilian operated converted airliners or ex-military planes.
(2) Air tanker drops started back in the '50s long before there was any TV coverage of the activity.
(3) Air tanker drops are done in Canada, Europe, Russia, Japan and probably other places I don’t know about.

All of this casts enough doubt on the premise of the article that I am inclined to call BS.

And one more thing. We should know by now that the fact that Trump has posted an inane tweet about Topic X tells us nothing at all about the worth or importance of Topic X.


The cyanide is probably not a huge issue - it degrades rapidly in sunlight, which is why it is such a useful plot tool in murder mysteries. The other compounds in fire retardent are definitely bad news for forest ecosystems.

Edit: Having read the article you linked, I’ll walk this back for now - if you are dropping the cyanide directly into a stream, that’s an issue as it still takes some time to degrade.

Yes and no - true, there are some types of forest where fire is a normal part of the cycle and even necessary for reproduction in certain species. But historic evidence suggests that the fires experienced in these places were smaller in size and intensity than they are now. The undergrowth would burn out in low intensity fires, but crown fires were much less common. The massive, intense wildfires we see today (especially in places that aren’t used to it) are a new phenomenon that is driven by a combination of forestry practices (fewer species, more closely spaced), climate change and previous fire suppression, and aren’t really “normal” from an ecosystem perspective. Add to this the fact that most fires are started by humans and it becomes not just a matter of “let it burn”, but doing more to mimic natural fire cycles by using controlled burns to reduce the fuel available.


screams incoherently at computer screen while clenching rage-fists

Red Adair used high explosives to extinguish fires so I think dropping a daisy cutter on Notre Dame would have worked fine.


They are one tool in a larger toolbox? I wouldn’t want to call to put an axe to their use, and then not have them available when professionals request them.


Ah, interesting. The few times I’ve seen the air tankers live they seemed to be super effective. However the few times I’ve seen it have all been very early in a fire’s life and the air tanker is the only thing hitting the fire, or one of the very few. Other times I have wondered “who no air tankers” when I’m seeing a fire that has been burning for multiple days.

Now I know, they are using the tool when it is most effective and not using it when it just costs a ton and isn’t as effective as a bunch of bulldozers or something.

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…for certain values of “advantage”

As a response of equal political value to Trump’s tweet, I’d love to see an RC enthusiast* make a video of a model air tanker dropping a retardant load on a flaming dumpster.

*unless they trend Trumpian, cuz, you know, FUCK the FAA…


My first thought is, how bout we take what we’ve learned about unmanned aerial platforms from the military, and applied it to firefighting instead. You’d think maybe we could bring those numbers down, get some photogenic air drops that don’t put air crew lives at risk, can handle funky flight conditions, and be quicker to deploy on site when time is short.

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