The Evolution of Aerial Firefighting

Sometimes a fleet of firefighters on ground isn’t enough to combat a rapidly-spreading wildfire—especially in areas with more treacherous terrain. In these situations, aerial firefighting helps to control the spread of the fire more quickly than traditional methods.

Aerial firefighting began around 1920 with the first attempts at dropping water from aircraft onto a fire. Most of these attempts were unsuccessful during this era, but they provided a platform for future initiatives through the USFS (U.S. Forest Service). In 1935, the Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project was created. At this point, aircraft became important for fire detection, but were still somewhat incapable of successfully extinguishing rapidly-spreading fires with water and fire retardant. It wasn’t until 1954 when a partnership between the USFS and other organizations produced an effective water dropping system using a TBM-1C bomber. This was put to the test during the Jamieson Fire, which occurred in southern California in 1954.

Inspired by agricultural spraying techniques, “helitankers” soon became the next progression in aerial firefighting. These easy-to-maneuver helicopters could deliver over 100 gallons of water when they were first introduced. With firefighting helicopters came “heli-rappellers”—firefighters who rappelled down to the fire as a ground force.

In the 1960s, surplus military aircraft became another effective way to combat wildfires. Planes like the B-25, Douglas B-26 and Lockheed PSV could carry 1,000 gallons of water. They also deployed “smokejumpers” or firefighters who parachuted from planes to help control ground fire. Smokejumpers became very effective, and smokejumper bases are located across western portions of the United States today.

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