Canadair water scooper aircraft. One of the of aircraft types that frequent Alaskan skies during fire season.

As wildfire season approaches in Alaska, we can expect to see the migration of fire-fighting aircraft into the state.  Only slightly behind the migrating waterfowl.  I had the opportunity to sit in on a briefing recently that described how the aircraft that are used to tackle wildfire are managed—and more specifically, the airspace around a fire that is “under attack.”  They use a structure called a Fire Traffic Area. This is not necessarily the same as a TFR, which would apply to those of us not participating in fire fighting operations.  More on that later.

Structure of a wildfire operation
Typically, first on the scene is an air attack aircraft.  Aero Commanders are used to perform this function in interior Alaska.  Onboard is a pilot and a fire-fighter.  From their vantage point overhead, they manage the air assets, which might include air tankers, helicopters, cargo planes making drops to crews on the ground, etc. They also monitor operations on the ground, and watch the development of the fire, among other things.

Fire Traffic Area Diagram. Note that aircraft may be arriving or holding in the airspace outside the 5 nm controlled area. Water scooper aircraft or helicopters may also be ferrying to and from nearby waterbodies. Monitor the tactical frequency, 128.45 MHz when flying in the vicinity of a fire fighting operation.

Fire Traffic Area
A piece of airspace five nautical mile in diameter called a Fire Traffic Area, is defined over the blaze during fire suppression operations. It typically extends from the surface to 2,500 feet above terrain.  Within this airspace, altitude zones are used to separate the different type of aerial operations (see diagram for altitude stratifications).  Aircraft involved in the operation are required to contact “air attack” when they are within 12 miles of the center of this structure, and not allowed within 7 nautical miles until they have established communication with the air attack ship.  This airspace will often, but not always, be accompanied by a TFR. When a TFR is established for fire-fighting operations, it should include a radio frequency and phone number, in case you do need to transit the airspace.

The two-person crew in the air attack aircraft not only directs tanker and other aerial activities—they also maintain communications with crews on the ground and dispatchers back at air bases.  Between VHF and FM radios and a Sat phone, they may have as many as eight com channels to manage.  If one is flying in the vicinity of a fire operation, a good thing to note is the primary air tactical frequency: 128.45 MHz.  Monitoring this frequency should give you an idea of what is happening.  If you need to transit the area, give a call.  If the frequency is extremely busy, that is a clue that you might want to detour around, and not add to the congestion they are already dealing with.  At other times, however, give a call, perhaps starting with a position report, and let them know what you would like to do.

Fire related radio frequencies that may be handy to know.

Reporting a wildfire
Depending on what part of the state you are in, either BLM or the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources will have jurisdiction over fire suppression activities. In case you need report a wild fire, two other frequencies to note are: State Forestry, 132.45 MHz and BLM Fire, 127.45.

Safety is our number one concern when sharing airspace with fire-fighting activities.  Keep these radio frequencies handy, check NOTAMs for TFR’s and enjoy the summer flying season!