Fire and Air Support
June 27, 2017
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  • Huge airplanes and helicopters dropping tons of water and bright red plumes of retardant makes for great pictures, but it’s the guys on the ground that make the difference in a fire.

    “The impression of the public is that aerial puts out the fire,” said Jayson Coil, Highline Fire operations chief. “Unless they are working in close with ground crews … they are a waste of money.”

    At one point during the height of the Highline Fire, Coil said he dropped 26 batches of retardant on a ridge.

    The fire simply jumped over the ridge.

    However, Coil said air support helped tremendously along the southeast side of the fire in the areas that would have affected La Cienega and Ellison Creek Estates.

    “The crews had put on hand and dozer lines,” said Coil. “There was a piece of that line that was too steep for the hand crews. What we did was used a helicopter and … air tankers to put down retardant and water.”

    That air attack effectively held the line and protected the communities under the Rim said Coil.

    Seth Webber, who worked as a coordinator for air support during the Highline confirmed that the crews on the ground drive how air resources will be used.

    He said air support plays a crucial role in the fire attack plan, however.

    Take the Multi-Mission Aircraft. It flies during the night taking infrared photos to determine the size of the fire and the hottest spots.

    Webber explained what the MMA is and what it can do.

    “It is a fixed-wing platform that has military technology (and) modern-day information gathering capability to provide intelligence to the leadership and decision makers,” he said.

    The information the MMA gathered during the night flights over the Highline Fire was then used to make risk-based decisions that affected how the firefighters on the ground fought the fire.

    Still, aircraft pose numerous other challenges.

    Webber said all firefighters are taught to not assume aircraft will come to their rescue.

    “None of the strategies (to fight the fire) are based on aviation,” he said.

    Why? Because a lot can go wrong. Aircraft could be grounded because of technical difficulties. “There are a lot of moving parts on an aircraft,” said Webber. 

    The weather could nix the flight. “If we can’t see, we don’t fly, darkness, fog and low light make it impossible to fly,” said Webber. “It could be too hot.”

    Pilots explain that when it’s too hot, the mass of the air thins because heat makes air molecules expand. When air molecules have expanded there are less molecules of air to hold up the aircraft.

    This explains why most pilots from Phoenix come to the Payson airport for breakfast and leave before it gets too hot.

    Despite the fire, those breakfast-seeking pilots continued to visit the Payson Airport. That made for some crazy air traffic control challenges.

    Webber said they had to bring in a temporary air traffic control tower to handle all the traffic.“When we had multiple air attacks, it got crazy busy,” he said.

    The air control for the fire operated as an air traffic controller, making sure planes and helicopters did not collide in the air.

    On top of all those limitations, priorities determine when a fire receives air support. Aircraft, especially the larger machines, usually are housed in metropolitan areas such as Phoenix, Prescott and Tucson because they need the space and support. 

    Fire operations must put in an order requesting support for those bigger aircraft. Webber said that request goes to other command centers that control the state, the region — even the country.

    “Requests can go to the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, N.M. on up to the National Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho,” said Webber. 

    If many requests for aircraft come in, those larger organizations must decide the priority of the need. If a fire gets bumped, the operation has to go to its plan B, or C or D, said Webber.

    Interestingly, air support prioritizes smaller fires, such as the Corner Fire that broke out in Tonto Basin on June 17 first. If an aerial attack can put out a small fire with one load, that’s a lot of bang for the buck.

    Coil said every time he requested air support, it was there. “We were the biggest fire in the nation,” he said. “Every request I put in was filled.”

    Both Webber and Coil said air support filled in critical areas of the Highline Fire due to the challenging terrain. “The support was provided in inaccessible areas,” said Webber.

    Providing support in inaccessible areas also included more mundane but critical services, such as bringing food and water to the ground crews.

    Coil said for the Highline Fire, the conditions were right to get as much support as they could out of the air.

    Aviation brought aircraft on early … so they could provide rapid support … when the conditions were favorable,” said Coil. “The thing about it, we got lucky.”

    He qualified that by saying luck in timing, weather and resources — but he gave full credit to the training and professionalism of every firefighter and pilot on the fire that resulted in a much more positive outcome than the Dude Fire.