The Forest Service uses planes of all types and sizes—not just airtankers— to manage wildland fire. When fire activity is high, planes transport skilled fire crews—sometimes across the country—or deliver smokejumpers over fires in remote locations. Specially-equipped planes gather infrared imagery to help map fires. Fire managers in planes conduct “aerial supervision” over fires to safely guide and direct other aircraft responding to the fire.
In 1956, World War II bombers were converted to
airtankers for wildland firefighting. Airtankers are fitted with tanks
that carry large volumes of fire retardant to drop on a fire. Airtankers
do not suppress fires, but they help firefighters on the ground by laying
a line of retardant along the sides of a wildfire. The retardant temporarily
cools the fire and slows it down. This gives firefighters time to construct
a fireline to contain the fire. Airtanker pilots can vary the amount of
retardant dropped on a fire to adjust to current fire behavior and the
kinds of fuels that are burning. Airtankers normally carry up to 2550
gallons of retardant.