Montana Outdoors

August 15, 2007

Aerial firefighting

For many years forest fires have been fought by air using helicopters dropping buckets of water and very large aircraft dropping huge amounts of fire-retarding slurry. The helicopters (like this one) can be based very close to the fire and attack quickly, filling their drop buckets from nearby lakes or rivers and if none are near, from water tanks set up by ground crews.

Fire helicopter

The large aircraft however, need a large airfield for refueling and refilling their tanks and usually that airfield is many miles away from the fire.

Recently small single engine aircraft have been added to the arsenal. They don’t carry as much slurry, but they need only a small airfield and can be deployed very quickly. They are now often used for immediate attack on new fires and on larger fires which are impossible to attack with the larger planes. There are several being used on the Chippy Creek fire and they are based at the small airfield in Plains Montana where they are only about 15 air miles from the fire. The sequence in the following 4 photographs demonstrates their use.

The huge plume of smoke in this photo coming from behind the peak is the result of the fire crowing in that area. The wind will fairly soon drive it over the ridge.

Chippy Creek fire

This is a close-up of the peak. Red from previous slurry drops can be seen on the bare rocky area. They are now dropping slurry ahead of the fire, on this side of the ridge. This probably means that the fire managers have conceded the ridge to the fire and are preparing an area on this side of it where they can start backfires and stop its progress at that point.

Chippy Creek fire

This little single engine slurry plane is headed for the area.

Fire fighting aircraft

Here is what his slurry drop looked like:

Chippy Creek fire

Here’s another photo of one of the planes from a different angle as he prepares a drop on a different section of the fire:

Fire fighting aircraft

And here is what his drop looked like:

Chippy Creek fire

These tiny aircraft seem to be very effective and I’ll bet they are a lot of fun to fly!

(These photos were taken on day 14 of the Chippy Creek fire in the Cabinet Mountains of Western Montana. It has now burned 82,160 acres or 128 square miles and is still growing.)


  1. Good photographs. Some fires–but possibly not this one–have been visible from the Space Shuttle and Station.

    Recently, I saw that some older 747s have been fitted with tanks for fire fighting. They can carry a substantial amount of water, but where small airfields are the norm, they’d have to fly in from some distance.



    Comment by knightofswords — August 16, 2007 @ 9:10 am

  2. Yes, I’ve seen that about the 747’s, and they could fly out of Kalispell or Missoula, but the way this fire is situated, I doubt if they would try to get a big plane into it. The little ones seem to do fine as long as they stay out of the smoke columns.

    I saw some space photos earlier that did show this fire. It’s big enough and with enough smoke, I imagine it’s a pretty visible terrain feature, even from way up there. I still think the estimated size is understated at 128 square miles. I have it at at least 150 if not more.


    Comment by montucky — August 16, 2007 @ 10:05 am

  3. very interesting, the plane looks so small in comparison to the smoke


    Comment by silken — August 16, 2007 @ 10:25 am

  4. I’m no expert, but I would guess that flying a fire-retardant-dropping aircraft is probably pretty dangerous, what with the lack of visibility, danger of updrafts, etc.
    Going with what silken said, I have always wondered how much good these drops actually do. I mean, the amount of retardant that they drop seems so small and insignificant in comparison to the size of the fire.


    Comment by wolf — August 16, 2007 @ 11:06 am

  5. Hence the phrase, “Just a drop in the bucket”. I always wondered where that originated.


    Comment by Pinhole — August 16, 2007 @ 1:51 pm

  6. silken,
    Yes it does and it is. This fire is over 15 miles long, and the smoke plume is more than 4 miles high. That dwarfs even the largest aircraft.

    It reminds me of the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”


    Comment by montucky — August 16, 2007 @ 6:59 pm

  7. wolf,
    Yes, flying those is very dangerous, but the guys that do it just love it! They can’t wait to get in the air in the morning.

    It was only two or three years ago when I saw the first of the small single engine slurry planes, and I laughed at them and called them mosquitoes. They now have made a believer out of me though. They are excellent for quick first strike attacks on new fires, and on the large fires it’s amazing what they can do knocking down the hot spots in a big fire. They can also put retardant in areas that a big plane can’t. Just another tool in the arsenal.


    Comment by montucky — August 16, 2007 @ 7:05 pm

  8. Pinhole,
    Well, enough drops, you know! I was on the fire lines myself the summer of 1960, along with a whole bunch of others trying to stop fires using just a shovel and an axe. There are still crews doing that on every fire. Compared to that, those little planes really look good!

    I’m also amazed at how effective the helicopters are with their water buckets. I’ve seen a few drops up close and it’s amazing how much good they can do.


    Comment by montucky — August 16, 2007 @ 7:10 pm

  9. Well done, great blog and great posts!!!


    Comment by Academia Ginastica Concurso Publico — August 16, 2007 @ 8:38 pm

  10. These were some great shots – it really is amazing to watch these bubbas in action! These are some really clear shots


    Comment by aullori — August 16, 2007 @ 10:09 pm

  11. It’s interesting to watch the action. I have a favorite spot for it. It’s about a 45 minute hike from the trailhead and is located right at the edge of a cliff. There’s a shady spot there and an unlimited view. This day I spent over two hours watching and trying to get shots of the action. It’s different because I get to see the aircraft from above, not below.


    Comment by montucky — August 16, 2007 @ 11:00 pm

    CALL KEVIN 6168623797


    Comment by kevin malarney — April 5, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

  13. Hello, I am writing an article for Pilot Getaways magazine about flying during fire season. The photo showing the small plane with slurry release ( the last picture) ; do you have it in hi-res? Would you like to send it for consideration in the magazine? If published we pay $25. Thanks. Crista


    Comment by Crista Worthy — April 15, 2008 @ 9:47 pm

  14. Crista,

    Thanks you for visiting and your interest in the photo. I just sent you an e-mail in response.



    Comment by montucky — April 15, 2008 @ 11:08 pm

  15. There are some awsome photos here. when i was a kid i used to watch the bobmer fly over my house on their way back to refill with slurry and bits of it would drop in the yard. because of that, after i finish my time active duty, i want to persue a career in this field. does anyone have information on how to do this? anything will help.

    my email is



    Comment by seth belt — July 9, 2008 @ 1:18 am

  16. Thanks for the visit, Seth. I just went you an email with some contact ideas. Good luck!


    Comment by montucky — July 9, 2008 @ 8:59 am

  17. Great blog and great photos. I work for the National Forest Foundation, here in Missoula. We work with the USFS to engage Americans in the stewardship and restoration of their National Forests. I manage a tree-planting program that helps the USFS fund reforestation efforts in wildfire areas where burn severity wipes out the seed source. We’re working on funding for the Chippy Creek fire right now, and I’d love to be able to use some of your photos to help tell the story and offer folks a way to see how their contributions might help. My email is 406.830.3361 will get my desk directly. Please let us know if you’re interested in sharing some of your photos with us. Best of luck and keep exploring!!


    Comment by Anonymous — August 26, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

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