Updated: Oct 13, 2020
When I tell somebody I do aerial fire-fighting and I’m referred to as a Fire Spotter, they mostly look at me with confusion, which is fair. The term FireSpotter is a bit outdated,
because in the past, the Spotter flew around the area literally “spotting” fires and alerting ground crews. However, due to the advancement in technology, cameras in the plantations are now effectively the Fire Spotters. Today, a more technically correct term for Spotters is “Command and Control Aircraft”, but everybody still calls them Spotters.
The job of the Spotter is to be the communication bridge between the guys on the ground and the water-releasing aircraft or Bombers. The Spotter, often flying at high altitude, has the best view of the entire fire from all sides and can easily direct and manage all available resources on the fire. Another critical aspect entails the safety of the Bombers, but more on that to follow.
With the background and basic terminology taken care of, let’s talk fire spotting…
This is my fourth ‘Fire Season’ and it’s been some of the best and worst times of my life.
From flying in crystal clear skies, with just a breath of wind above the canopies, to fires underneath storm cells, with gale force winds and turbulence strong enough for even Airlink having to divert. You can go for weeks, even months without flying and then you get days where you fly from sunrise to sunset, where you are forced to stop flying only because of Flight and Duty restrictions. Fire Season can be mind-numbingly boring, but can also provide adrenaline-rushing highs! If there is one thing I’ve learnt coming back here each year, is that you can never predict the season at hand.
A typical season lasts from June to October, and in that time, anything can happen… My first Fire Season I flew a total of only 19.8 hours… Just think about that, 20 hours in 5 months, that’s 4 hours a month. The down side is that this reflects an average season (typically 15 – 30 hours), so clearly, this is not a job for young fresh Comm pilots to do in the hopes of building hours (something I too didn’t think of at the time with just under 300 hours to my name).
Remember, on the other hand, when I said that you can’t predict the season? Well, the 2019 season was the perfect example of that, enabling me to fly 103.6 hours… Drought, strong winds, incorrect harvesting methods, honey harvesters, flicking a cigarette, labour issues, burning of trash, and even mid-winter lightning and/or broken bottles acting as a magnifying glass, all influence the type of season that lies ahead.
If you are the type of person who wants to work on a fixed schedule and/or likes to plan your day ahead, then this is not the job for you. Trying to make plans during a fire season is basically impossible. The weather here in KZN changes in a heart-beat and blue skies can disappear in a matter of minutes. As a Fire Spotter or Bomber pilot you are required to be at work all day, everyday; weekends and public holidays included. Fires don’t take the day off so neither can those responsible for fighting them. The only time air crew get an off day is when they physically can't fly due to the cloud base being on the ground or if it’s pouring with rain. Our standby hours are based on something which is referred to as the FDI (Fire Danger Index). The FDI is a scale from 0-100, which indicates the level of danger for fires that day. An FDI nearing 100 indicates an extremely high fire danger.
So now what actually happens when there is a fire and they call for aircraft?
The Spotter jumps into his/her plane (a C182 in my case) and gets airborne as soon as possible.
The Bombers (Thrush/Airtractor aircraft) taxi to the reservoirs and get filled up with water.
Once airborne, the Spotter calls the dispatch centre and receives the location of the fire as well as who the responsible person or FireBoss will be on the ground. The FireBoss is typically the person in charge of the fire and who the Spotter engages with in order for the aircraft and ground crew to be the most effective.
Once the Spotter reaches the fire, the situation is assessed in terms of size, direction in which the fire is moving, speed of spread and main energy source (i.e. type of substrate, like trees, felled trees, piled-up stumps, grass, etc.). The Spotter must also consider possible hazards for the Bombers; they are low, slow and heavily loaded, so rely on the Spotter to paint them the best possible picture of what's happening on the fire. Hazards include telephone poles, power lines, standing trees (so-called ‘widow makers’), birds, high ground and at times even fire tornadoes.
Once the situation has been assessed, the Spotter establishes communication with the FireBoss and together they decide on the best way to fight the fire.
By this time, the Bombers are a few minutes away and they are ready to receive their target.
At this time, the main function of the Spotter is to ensure that his/her Bombers are safe at all times. During the few minutes leading up to the Bombers turning in to drop their loads, their safety becomes the Spotters’ priority and is all he/she now focusses on. The Spotter must have them in sight at all times until they can safely dump their loads and climb away from the fire.
After a Bomber has dropped its load, the Spotter must assess the impact of the drop on the fire.
Was it on target?
Did the water hit the flames?
There is no point in telling a Bomber that the drop was successful when it actually missed the flames by 200m. Misinformation will lead to the next load being dropped in the same no-impact zone. Spotters and Bombers acknowledge human error amidst challenging conditions, but always strive for that rewarding ‘perfect drop’. Luckily the Bombers are seasoned veterans, who rarely miss their target. A further responsibility of the Spotter is to keep the FireBoss updated on the status of the fire; whether the fire has jumped into a neighbouring plantation or if the ground crew on the right flank has managed to contain that side.
The cockpit of the Spotter plane can get insanely busy. The Spotter has quite a number of frequencies, which need to be monitored and broadcast on. There is a frequency for the Bombers (normally more than one plane), one for the Fireboss, one for the dispatch centre and then one for either special rules or TIBA.
On a busy day, with 6 planes on a fire and other traffic in the area, the cockpit of the Spotter becomes a communications nightmare. Once the fire is under control, the FireBoss ‘releases’ the aircraft and all return to the closest refuelling base. Afterwards, it's time to do some paperwork and reflect (have a beer) on another safe and successful day in the air. A happy FireBoss is a happy air crew!
For me, the best thing about Fire Season is the other pilots and dispatch crew. The pilots at Riverdale and Shafton are a bunch of guys who really know how to fly… what they do is truly remarkable. Have a look at the pictures and you’ll appreciate my admiration. They understand their machines and know what their limits are; you will never be able to send any of these pilots to fight a fire if he is not comfortable in doing so. A trait that you learn immediately after your first “oh hell” moment.
My moment came when we had a callout for a fire that was burning down in a valley with a thunderstorm building right above it… The storm was still in the Cumulus stage with strong updrafts when we arrived. Conditions on and above the fire were intense, with severe wind-sheer and flames taller than the trees. It was a constant battle to keep control of the aircraft.
The onset of the Mature stage was when the moment happened. A downdraught of 2000ft/per minute pushed my 182 right down into the valley. With no possible way of climbing back out and rain starting to fall, we all made the decision that to continue on that fire was not worth the risk. Luckily, I managed to stay in the valley and follow it a safe distance away from the storm to eventually climb out and return to base. That was the first and last time I have ever flown towards a storm cell. Lesson learnt.
Fire Season has really taught me a lot and has been a time of my life that I wouldn’t exchange for anything. It’s real hands-on flying, while interacting with professional crews alongside you in the air and on the ground. I wish to thank the KwaZulu-Natal Fire Protection Association, in collaboration with Orsmond Aviation, Bethlehem, for the opportunity to serve as Spotter during this and previous seasons.