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The Air Up There Podcast

Wildfires and Aviation

Season 1, Episode 5
Published: Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Wildfires have become more intense over the past few years, and we're getting used to seeing firefighting aircraft in action. But, that's only part of our story. Aircraft are also used to direct ground operations, protect firefighters and provide a birds-eye view of the action. In this episode, we'll meet the pilots and ground crews who give us an inside look at how aircraft help fight wildfires.

In this episode, you'll hear from Joshua Nettles, Tactical Air Operations Division Chief for CAL FIRE, and Josh Mathiesen, Interagency Fire Chief for Six Rivers National Forest and Redwood National Park, U.S. Forest Service.

Read the show notes on our blog.

Wildfires and Aviation

Wildfires and Aviation

Transcript

John Croft:
Hello and welcome to another episode of The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aviation and for today's episode in particular, the hot world of aviation. I'm John Croft.

Alison Duquette:
And I'm Alison Duquette.

John Croft:
Alison, as you know, today's topic is wildfires and how the government and our public safety agencies attack and defeat wildfires. Not surprisingly, when I hear and see the news, what really gets my attention are the aerial tankers, the DC-10s and the 747 and all the other support aircraft that drop a cloud of reddish liquid in the path of the fire.

Alison Duquette:
Hey, John, I've always lived on the east coast so I automatically think of ground-based firefighters like my grandfather. He was a fire chief in North Tarrytown, New York. But if you live out West, you definitely have an appreciation for air operations and that orange haze you mentioned. The wildfires here have been so devastating this year. Our field reporter Emma Duncan's interview with CAL FIRE's chief Josh Nettles really brought home the unique complexity of flying those airplanes in really dangerous conditions.

John Croft:
Yeah and the training and commitment of the pilots is quite phenomenal. In today's interviews, we'll discover that the aerial forces are a small part of the human response that jumps into action when the fires break out — and I mean literally jump, some of them. These dedicated brave teams in the air and on the ground, they work tirelessly fire after fire to make sure people in homes are spared from flames. As you can imagine Alison, it's a tight knit group that even has its own dictionary. Have you ever heard of dry mopping your yard Alison?

Alison Duquette:
No, and that does not sound like something I'd be interested in doing, no way.

John Croft:
Exactly, me neither. Especially now that I know what it means. But these ground teams are out there doing it day and night and I'm glad for it.

Alison Duquette:
Okay, John. Well, we'll learn about that later. But for now, let's start in the skies with an interview with CAL FIRE Chief Josh Nettles.

SFX — firefighter chatter:
There's an aircraft in the area, there could be an incident there. [inaudible 00:02:05] showing 15 miles to the Southeast currently 3,500 [inaudible 00:02:09]

Emma Duncan:
For the past several years, wildfire seasons in several Western States in the U.S., especially California, have become more intense and have resulted in increasingly devastating property damage. The amount of land consumed in wildfires continues to set records. We see vivid and frightening images on social media and broadcast news of raging brush fires, forest being consumed by flames, houses burning as residents flee to safety with a few meager possessions they can carry with them, all with the orange smoke-filled air as the backdrop. Amidst the chaos, firefighting experts from around the country work tirelessly to combat the blazes and try desperately to save lives and properties, often putting their own lives at risk in the process.

The danger these firefighters face is inherently increased when hundreds, or even thousands, of square miles burned for days or weeks on end. A key component in these firefighting efforts involves air support provided by a variety of organizations. One of the best known of these groups is CAL FIRE that operates throughout the enormous range of wildlands in California. CAL FIRE aviators push the limits of the aircraft they fly and their aviation skills while they work in tandem with ground crews to fight fires efficiently and quickly. Josh Nettles, CAL FIRE's Division Chief of Tactical Air Operations in their Southern Region, takes us through the process of aerial firefighting and his role in the operation.

SFX — firefighter chatter:
… drop. I need to drop it there for structure protection. We're cleared routes behind the copter. Coverage level …

Josh Nettles:
Okay. My role and the role that I've been in for probably about the last 10 years now, is that of an Air Tactical Group Supervisor. What that does, is that's a supervisory position over aircraft. I actually fly in the back seat of an OV-10 Bronco and I'm the aerial supervisor over wildland fires. I coordinate all the aerial resources as far as air tankers, helicopters. In essence, I'm an air traffic controller, if you will, over a fire and I ensure that all the aircraft have their own airspace, they're not going to bump into anybody if you will. Then I also coordinate with the ground resources to ensure that our efforts are coordinated with the ground efforts to put the fire out quickly and efficiently.

Our standard response to any wildland fire in California is to have one air attack, which is the OV-10, two air tankers, which are the S2T's and then one or two helicopters, which we're currently in a transition from our old UH1H Vietnam-era helicopters, to our Blackhawk or Firehawk type helicopters that we've taken — I think we've taken delivery of three right now, eventually we'll have 12 of them. So that's the initial response. Now, if the fire gets bigger and we're not able to control it with those aircraft, we can call in additional aircraft. I've been on fires where we've had 10 to 12 helicopters and eight, nine, 10 air tankers at the same time.

SFX — firefighter chatter

Emma Duncan:
Chief Nettles and his crew navigate in extremely congested airspace while flying above the fire in tricky and dangerous conditions. It is vital that they preserve their own safety and that of the firefighters on the ground while maintaining constant vigilance to the changing air conditions in close quarters.

SFX — firefighter chatter
… 1673. Correct, I copy. I'll be remaining overhead …

Josh Nettles:
I would say flying in that atmosphere, it is challenging and difficult, because not only are you flying over an emergency scene, a fire, but you're flying in smoke, so you have reduced visibility. You're also flying in an extremely congested airspace. You can have anywhere from typically three to maybe 10 or 15 other aircraft within a five nautical mile radius of yourself. I know that as a pilot when I was training, everybody trains you to stay away from other aircraft. Well, this is a little bit different, because you're really close to other aircraft.

Then you not only have to worry about the other aircraft, but hazards such as power lines, towers, drones, but then there's also the weather that's associated with a fire. You have updrafts, downdrafts, some sheer winds, all those different kinds of things that you have to worry about. With the tankers that we're flying, they're flying right at the gross weight of that aircraft when they're fully loaded. You're flying a tanker at gross weight in this extreme condition and you need to know how to be able to control that aircraft and fly that aircraft to the best of the aircraft's ability and know what to expect in certain conditions.

Emma Duncan:
In terms of flying through thick smoke, is that crucial to avoid and why?

Josh Nettles:
Yes. We typically try not to fly through thick smoke. The main column of the fire is what we call the convective column and that's where most of the heat is going up through that convective column. That's where you're going to get the darkest smoke and we try not to fly through that. Have we flown through it? Yes. Is it comfortable? No. It's very turbulent. It does move the aircraft around severely and we will typically only do that if we absolutely have to. Typically, the tanker pilots, we're not just going to fly through smoke where we can't see the other side. Now you may see pictures of tankers flying through smoke. Typically, the ones that I've seen, that they took a picture on the ground and what I saw in the air were two completely different things. There may be smoke there, but the pilot can see through it. And, they're also trusting me as the aerial supervisor, that there's nobody on the other side of that smoke and they have a clear exit.

Emma Duncan:
Like most of our listeners, having grown up in a place where wildfires are not common, I had little knowledge of what aerial firefighters did. Chief Nettles explains the different functions of the various aircraft CAL FIRE uses, including helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, such as the massive tankers that drop fire retardant to help stop the advancing flames. The tankers he explains, are typically flown by their most experienced pilots due to the complexity of piloting such a plane during challenging firefighting operations.

Josh Nettles:
Well, the technical aspects of it is like I said, you're flying at max gross weight almost all the time. Then you're flying in that hazardous environment and you're expected to go down and drop about 150 feet above the ground at about 120 knots. Okay, that's doable if it's flat land. We don't typically fight fire in flat land. It's really steep. You may have to start at the top of a ridge and dive down that ridge at 150 feet with all these hazards and winds and smoke and everything else, and be able to keep your aircraft on speed when you release the retardant.

That's very difficult to do and requires a lot of training. Not only that, that's all the pilot stuff, now you have to think about all the firefighting stuff — firefighting behavior, what's the retardant going to do, are you putting it in the spot that you've asked to put it in, are there any firefighters on the ground that you may be injuring if you release the retardant too soon, too late, in the wrong area?

I've ridden in tankers during drop runs that we have to do that for some of our training. And talking to the tinker pilot — I'm a private pilot, typically, our tanker pilots are ATP, IFR rated, the full nine yards. They have thousands of hours of flight time. I always thought this was a good comparison — when the aircraft is fully loaded and at max gross weight, they say it flies like a UPS truck, but when you release the retardant, it now flies like a sports car, because you have so much power when there's no load in there. You can do a lot of different things. When they're fully loaded and they released their load, they're releasing about 10,000 pounds. You think about it, 10,000 pounds is going out of the aircraft within anywhere from three to seven seconds.

Emma Duncan:
Oh my gosh. That's absolutely crazy. What has to go into where you place that retardant? Can you explain to me a little bit about the logistics of placing that retardant on the fire and what that can cause in terms of implications to other efforts?

Josh Nettles:
What we do is, we coordinate, like I said, with the ground crews to put the retardant on the fire where it's going to be the most effective. Typically, if we have a fire that's burning in some medium brush, your average firefighter can't get that close to those flames because it's too hot. So what we can do is, we take this retardant and basically what retardant is — I'm sure most people have seen it, it's that red stuff that comes out of the aircraft. Everybody asks, well, what is it? Is it chemicals? What is it? Well, it's basically fertilizer. It's ground fertilizer that you would put on your lawn, but it's in a higher concentration. It's a phosphorus based fertilizer. It's mainly water, but it's got some phosphorus chemicals in there. It's got a gum thickener and we thicken it to make it fly out of the aircraft better and stick together. Then it's also got the colorant in there and that colorant is what we call fugitive. The fugitive means that it will fade in time. So as the retardant sits out on the side of the mountain in UV light, it's supposed to fade to almost clear within 14 days.

Emma Duncan:
In addition to the tankers, CAL FIRE uses helicopters with buckets and fixed tanks that collect water from nearby lakes and ponds. They then fly to the fire and drop the water to help douse the fire from above.

Josh Nettles:
Some of our helicopters have buckets. It's called a Bambi Bucket. You actually go into a pond and you just put the bucket in the pond. I've been on a helicopter when they're doing this. You just hover over the pond. You put the bucket in and as soon as the bucket's full, because you have windows at your feet and you can see through mirrors and such where the bucket is. Once it's full, you pull up out of the pond. Now, depending on obviously how much fuel you have — our Hueys, they have a lot less power than the new CAL FIRE Hawks that are coming out. The pilot really has to pay attention to how much torque they're using on the engine, how much weight they can do. So, maybe they can't fill the bucket all the way up, depending on all the different variables and the max gross weight of the aircraft. So they're really paying attention to that, in addition to, maybe the pond is somewhat tight and that it's got a lot of foliage around it or brush or trees, and they're looking to make sure that they have rotor clearance. The other type of helicopter that we have has a fixed tank on the bottom. With that fixed tank, it's hard attached to the aircraft. It's not a jettisonable item. Then it has a snorkel that comes down. It's basically just about a 10 to 15 foot hose with a hydraulic powered pump on the end of it.

Those we put in our typically more urban areas where we have to fly over houses and population. We don't want to fly with a jettisonable load like a bucket over houses and population. If there was an inadvertent press of a button, we don't want to lose that bucket and injure somebody or destroy some property. That's why we have some tanks on some of our aircraft. That snorkel goes down into the water, the pilot pushes a button, turns the pump on, the water flows up through the hose into the tank. Again, they regulate how much water they can carry based on multiple factors. All the new CAL FIRE Hawks that we're getting, they're all coming with the tanks and we're kind of moving away from the buckets. When we get a lot of helicopters, basically what we do, we have them fall into a line and they're just from the fireline to the pond and then back and forth, back and forth. It's just a bucket brigade.

Emma Duncan:
In a moment, we will hear more from Chief Nettles about what goes into controlling the airspace during a firefighting operation.

John Croft:
Alison, that's really cool that they have these hoses coming out of the helicopter sucking up water out of lakes. I'll keep that in mind next time on fishing out there.

Alison Duquette:
Okay well, from buckets to drones, let's take a quick break. For all your drone pilots out there, here's a tip from our very own FAA Drone Guy, Kevin Morris.

Kevin Morris:
With wildfires in the news lately, you might be tempted to fly your drone near one. Please don't. Flying near a wildfire is dangerous and can cost lives. Firefighting aircraft fly at very low altitudes and can come up quickly on a location. So if you fly, they can't. Plus, you can get a $20,000 fine. So, think before you fly.

John Croft:
We're back and taking off again with part two of our interview with CAL FIRE's Chief Josh Nettles.

Emma Duncan:
While in the air, Chief Nettles relies on several important tools to help him control the airspace and direct his team of pilots where aerial efforts are needed, including communicating on up to a dozen radios at a time. But overall, he says his training experience and, believe it or not, just a piece of paper and a pencil are the most important and critical tools.

Josh Nettles:
Well, I would say the most important tools is basically my training and experience. In order to get into this position, we have to have a good base knowledge and ground firefighting. We have to do anywhere from eight to 10 years on the ground to understand fire behavior, to know what the troops on the ground are going through and how that we can help them from the aerial side to help extinguish the fire. Then experience — we go through a lot of training to get into this position. Experience, training, and then obviously the tools that we have. I fight fire with a piece of paper and a pencil. My job is just to coordinate aircraft and make sure that everybody has their own space to work in, and, that if I clear an air tanker to go down and drop at 150 feet AGL, that they have clear airspace to do that, to enter it and to exit through it. Then also that the helicopters are out of the way and any other aerial assets might be out of the way, as well as any hazards in the area such as power lines or towers or anything like that. That responsibility falls on me to make sure that those are being taken care of. By the way, AGL means Above Ground Level. We do a lot of different things in the fire service that either are AGL, Above Ground Level or MSL, which just Mean Sea Level, which is the altitude you would read off of your altimeter in the aircraft.

Emma Duncan:
Can you speak a little bit on the communication that goes on between you, your pilots and people on the ground? How do you communicate with all of those people at the same time?

Josh Nettles:
In the OV-10, we have a number of radios. For any pilots out there listening to the radios in their aircraft, they know it can be challenging to figure out what transmissions are for them and which ones are not. In the OV-10, believe it or not, I listened to, let's see, three AM frequencies and six FM frequencies at the same time. I listen to nine different frequencies at the same time. The way we do that, is by volume control. So we have a mixer box, which brings all the different radios into one box and I'm able to adjust the volumes on each radio in order of importance.

We have a radio that I just talked to the other fixed wing aircraft with, that's an FM radio. We have a radio that we talk to just the rotor wing aircraft with, that's an AM radio. I have a radio that I just talk to our command centers, which are the dispatch centers in different locations. Then I have another radio that I just talk to the ground crews with. Then I have another radio that's just on an emergency type frequency, so if anybody on the fire has an emergency, they don't have to try to determine what channel that I'm listening to or anybody else is listening to. They can talk on that channel and everybody will hear them. There's a variety of different frequencies and radios that we listen to at the same time. After a while, your ear kind of gets tuned to what's important, what's not, and you're able to listen to two or three, maybe even four different conversations at the same time.

Emma Duncan:
How many hours would you say you are in the cockpit, paying attention to all of these radios on an average wildfire fighting day?

Josh Nettles:
Our department policy is, we can fly a maximum of seven hours per day for safety and that's flight hours. That we hold our, not only for the air attacks, but we hold our pilots to that as well. So seven hours per day, either by the Hobbs, which is an instrument in the aircraft that basically times how long the engine is running, or it can be off of, we call it chock time. So from the time the aircraft leaves the homebase, if you will, until the time they get back into the homebase. The difference between those is just taxiing time. But it's seven hours max.

With the OV-10, one mission, we can go anywhere from four to five hours at a time on one tank of fuel if you will. The tankers can only do about two hours. The helicopters can do about an hour and a half, but the helicopters, we have a fuel truck, or we call it a helitender, that follows the helicopter. They'll drive to the scene and they'll find an open field somewhere, and they'll set up a landing zone where they can refuel the helicopter. The helicopter will still be at the fire. They'll go sit down, refuel with the engine still running and then go back and continue to fight the fire.

Emma Duncan:
Do you know offhand, how many pilots you have in the CAL FIRE department?

Josh Nettles:
In the whole department, ground crews and aerial crews, I believe we have somewhere around 5,500 to 6,000 uniformed personnel throughout the state. We go from the Mexico border to the northern border with Oregon. We serve multitude of counties within the State. We have what we call a state responsibility area, which is lands, it's not federal land and it's not, say like a city government or a county government land, that the State of California is responsible for fire protection on those lands.

SFX — firefighter chatter:
Yeah, affirmative, just an update. The fires looking really good. I released … the tankers.

Emma Duncan:
As Chief Nettles said, being aware of obstacles in the airspace around a wildfire is incredibly important. Not only for the efficiency of the operation, but for the safety of firefighters on the scene. So what happens when a drone is spotted in the surrounding area? Keep in mind, drone users are not allowed to fly over natural disasters. Yet it is not uncommon for their first responders to encounter a recreational drone during their missions.

SFX — firefighter chatter:
Releasing the tanker …

Emma Duncan:
I'm assuming that you have been forcibly grounded during an operation due to a drone. What does that feel like and what is that process of communicating with everybody? Why do you have to ground because of a drone? We just kind of want to get a base-level here.

Josh Nettles:
There's a little bit of background that goes to that. In the command and control aircraft that I'm in, we're up at 2,500 feet above the ground and typically these hobby drones don't fly that high. So as the command and the control aircraft, I can stay above the fire, but my air tankers and my helicopters that I'm in direct control of, I need to put them either on the ground or have them clear the area, because the air takers go down to 150 feet above the ground when they drop. Like I said, the helicopters go down to 60 or 100 feet above the ground when they're dropping suppressant. I need to get those guys out of the area.

Think of it as a to-do list you have, and you have let's say 10 things on that to-do list and you're just on step one. Then a drone comes into the airspace. Well, now it's added basically five or 10 more steps to my to-do list in order to complete the mission. It's frustrating in that it's adding more work for us and we already have way more work than we need. I have to communicate with all my helicopters. I have to make positive contact with them. I may have six, seven, eight helicopters on a fire at once, and I have to get positive contact from each of those aircraft, as well as the tankers, and not only tell them what the hazard is, but then tell them where I want them to move on the fire or move away so that they're not in the area of the hazard. Now keep in mind, if it's a small fire, let's say anything from one acre to maybe even 100 or 200 acres, they're pretty much going to have to be off the fire if there's a drone in the area.

Now if it's a large fire, let's say like 80,000 acres or 40,000 acres, depending on where the drone is, I could possibly move the aircraft to another area of the fire and start working there. However, if we're working in a spot on a large fire that's probably the highest priority, and if I have to move them away from that priority, it's just frustrating that we have to do that, because we have a plan of action and we want to be able to protect as much life and property as possible.

Fire does move very quickly. Sometimes it doesn't move as quickly, depends on the weather situation. If we're really trying to protect a structure or a house or some firefighters, because fire is really moving in on them fast, it's really frustrating enough that we have to move people away or not be able to support them. That's another thing that I have to communicate to the ground is, Look, hey, we spotted a drone in the area, or you told it to us, I'm going to have to pull out your aerial support. Kind of like the military in war — if they don't have aerial support, if my ground firefighters don't have aerial support, can they still do the job? Sure. But it makes it 100 times harder.

Emma Duncan:
If you could speak directly to drone users, what would you hope their biggest takeaway be from this subject?

Josh Nettles:
I think the biggest takeaway is, just the knowledge that we're out there. If you see smoke, regardless of where it is in the state or in the country, shouldn't fly near it. You shouldn't go towards it. You shouldn't have your drone up. It would be like flying right next to an airport. I know that's illegal. I would hope that they would think that, hey, if I put this drone up, am I going to impact the suppression efforts of the fire department? Or am I going to cause undue harm to potentially somebody that's trying to help out with this fire?

My takeaway to them would be, just think about what you're doing before you throw that thing up in the air and how it can impact other people. Even if you don't see us, even if you don't hear us. Because a lot of times our bases are spread apart in California so that we can reach any fire within 20 minutes. If you see a fire that's just now starting and you get your drone up and you throw it up and it's only been five minutes since the fire started and you don't see any aircraft, that doesn't mean we're not there. It just means we're not there yet. We come in at aircraft speeds, typically 200 knots on the way there and then we slow down to 150 knots once we get over the fire.

Emma Duncan:
Would you say then, since you have that set time limit for seven hours or even less with how much fuel you can have in each aircraft. Would you say that having that drone be there already and impacting your critical mission is impeding a lot of progress?

Josh Nettles:
I would say so. With that, if there's a drone there before we arrive at scene or right when we get a scene there's a drone that's there, the easiest and the fastest way for us to put a fire out is when it's small. If there's a drone there when we first get there, we can't attack the fire when it's small. We have to wait until that drone goes away, it gets on the ground and we have to get that confirmed by either law enforcement or ground personnel. That takes time. That's why fire engines on the road, they have lights and sirens and everything else to get to the fire fast. Well, because fires, the bigger they get, the harder they are to control. It's the same thing for the aerial assets. We try to get there as fast as possible, because if we keep it small, it's a lot easier to control. If we get there and there's a drone and we can't take any action, that fire's just going to keep getting bigger and it makes our job that much harder.

Emma Duncan:
A lot of thoughts go through the minds of the dedicated firefighters at CAL FIRE during an operation. First and foremost, they're devising the best strategies for dropping the flame retardant and extinguishing the fire. But they're also considering how to stay safe and how their work impacts others. They all share a sense of responsibility to the people whose property, livelihoods and very lives they're trying to save. These thoughts are always in the back of their minds and drive them to accomplish the operation successfully.

Josh Nettles:
Our goal or our mission in CAL FIRE is to preserve and protect life and property and environment. Obviously life comes first, not only the life of the citizen, but like you said, the life of the firefighter that's on the ground there. They're the one putting themselves in danger, trying to get as close to those flames as possible to put it out and we're there to assist them. Really, we always say the aerial assets, we don't put fire out. We make it or we hold a fire in check long enough so the ground assets can get there and put it out.

Because we can drop as much water and retardant on a fire, unless you have a firefighter down there to actually grub it out with hand tools or put water on it from a hose line, it doesn't go out. Yeah, life is the first one, not only of the public, but of the firefighters that we work with and then property. I hate seeing somebody's house burn. Unfortunately I see that, I wouldn't say a lot, but I do see it from time to time. It's heartbreaking because you know that, at least for me, my house is everything that I have and to see somebody's house burn, that's traumatic. I try not to let that get to me when I'm doing my job. However, it is always in the back of your mind.

Emma Duncan:
Learning about all the hard work our nation's firefighters do to combat wildfires, is really impressive. It made me realize how critical these efforts are. I was especially fascinated to find out how difficult flying in these conditions can be and how skilled CAL FIRE's pilots are. So hopefully this gives you a better idea of what goes into the heroic efforts of all the firefighters working to preserve properties and save lives during wildfire seasons each year. Back to you, John and Alison.

John Croft:
Very cool. Thanks to Chief Nettles for his behind the scenes look at aerial firefighting. Let's pause now for some aviation trivia.

Announcer:
Where did the first commercial airplane flight in the United States take place? The first commercial airplane flight in the U.S. took place from St. Petersburg Florida to Tampa Florida in 1914, covering over 18 miles in 23 minutes.

Alison Duquette:
John, let's now go to your interview with Josh Mathieson. He's with the U.S. Forest Service and has spent 25 years as a smoke jumper. He's going to talk us through a wildfire scenario from his perspective.

John Croft:
Josh, thanks for talking to us today. This is great to have somebody who's actually on the ground there, seeing what's happening. Can you tell us what your job entails, your current job, and maybe you could go through a little bit of your history previously, what you did in terms of the fire response?

Josh Mathieson:
Yeah, you bet. So it's kind of a journey to get me to where I am today with my current job. But I started out on a hotshot crew which is a ground-base wildland firefighting crew. I spent four years there. Then in 1994, I went to Redding to rookie as a smoke jumper. Smoke jumpers get delivered via parachute to wildland fires all across the U.S., Alaska. So I rookied in '94 as a smoke jumper and spent 25 years as a jumper. I worked my way up from a rookie to the base manager. I managed the program for my last five years there. Through the years of doing that job, got a lot of experience in aviation as a spotter. Spotters are the ones that actually throw the smoke jumpers out of the plane.

Then became an air tactical supervisor while simultaneously being a smoke jumper, and that led me to where I'm at today. I work with the lead plane, the air attack in the right seat with a lead plane pilot in the left seat. We coordinate air tanker drops and try to sequence in helicopters and just make firefighting, aerial firefighting, as efficient and safe as possible. That's what I'm doing currently. But everything that I did previous gave me the experience to be effective in this job that I'm in today.

John Croft:
Now, when you say 25 years as a jumper, that's pretty amazing. How many jumps are we talking about? Do you log them like a pilot logs hours?

Josh Mathieson:
Yeah, you do. I have just under 500 parachute jumps through my career. Typically, you average about 20 to 25 jumps a year in the forest service and some of those are proficiency and then the others are actual fire jumps.

John Croft:
Josh, why jump in versus walking up or taking one of these bulldozers or whatever?

Josh Mathieson:
Well, it's really all about speed, range and payload. With fixed wing aircraft, you can get places quick. All fires start the same size, right? Either a lightning strike or a small ignition somewhere. The faster that you can get to them, the smaller they are when you get there and the more likely that you're able to catch them and put them out.

The smoke jumper program was developed to quickly get to fires that are relatively inaccessible. A lot of the fires in the wilderness, the "back forty" if you will, of the national forest. So you get there quickly and then with parachutes, you can essentially pinpoint where you want to land, right next to the fire or near the fire. Then payload, these aircraft carry a lot of equipment for us, so they drop it via paracargo — chainsaws, tools, food, water is dropped into you after you hit the ground. Then you just work the fire until it's either out or controlled or contained. Then you pack out or walk out or fly in a helicopter out and then get back on the list and do it all over again.

John Croft:
With all your experience from the whole spectrum of fighting fires, wildland fires, could you talk us through a wildfire scenario and talk about how the different aspects come in?

Josh Mathieson:
Yeah, you bet. I mean, it really is a team effort, wildland fire suppression. An emerging incident, the initial attack, both ground and aviation resources — is really like a coordinated effort that we all rely on each other. Nobody by themselves can really accomplish the mission without each other. A typical scenario, and I'll use the jumper scenario, which is I think a pretty good indication of how things work. Especially up here in Northern California, we get summer lightning storms that will come through and they'll ignite fires all over the mountains in the forest. Some of these fires, because of the locations of these, the communities that are near them and stuff like that need to be suppressed pretty quickly.

When there's a report of a new start, aircraft and ground-based resources will get dispatched to that lat and long [latitude and longitude] — usually is how we get a geographical location, with a lat and long. The smoke jumpers, sometimes there'll be air tankers, dispatch helicopters, and then ground crews engines, and sometimes bulldozers, hotshot crews, depending on where it's at and how big the initial report is. A lot of stuff is going to be sent to this fire because the idea is to pound it. Put as much effort on it. Speed, range, payload, aggressive initial attack to try to put it out as quickly as possible.

Because of the inaccessibility of some of these areas, generally speaking, the first folks on scene are going to be smoke jumpers. Sometimes there's going to be rappellers that rappel on ropes out of helicopters, and it's going to be an air assault. There's going to be jumpers that jump in, they're on the ground and they're working directly with either the air tankers or helicopters to try to slow the spread of the fire, so that the ground-based folks can build the fireline to get around it as quickly as possible.

Once the jumpers are on the ground, it'll be a coordinated effort with the air attack up above, and they'll be communicating about, Hey, what do you guys need down there? We'd like to put retardant around the left shoulder, across the head and down the right flank, or something like that. There's that communication between the folks on the ground and then the aerial supervisor. Then that person who's above everything is coordinating that effort, is making sure that the right aircraft get deployed where they're wanted, based on the feedback from the ground.

If I was on the ground working with the air attack, I'd ask for retardant across the head to try to slow the spread of it. Once those drops came in, I would be given feedback to the air attack saying, Hey, that pilot missed, or you need to increase your coverage level because that retardants not hitting the ground, the canopy's too thick. So there's a lot of communication about how effective the aerial suppressant work is going on.

It's just this constant ebb and flow of communication and just working with each other to try to get around this. Meanwhile, the guys on the ground are running chain saws. They're digging dirt. They're trying to get a fireline built around this thing as quickly as possible. Sometimes it's just burning too hot. You can't get right next to it, and that's where you need helicopter drops. There's this coordination with the helicopter drops, but the people can't be right there. So you have to back up. They'll drop the water. You get back in, you dig, dig, dig, and then the helicopter will come back, drop some water. It's the constant ebb and flow of aerial suppression and then the ground guys working their way around the fire. Then at some point, especially on a successful initial attack, you'll have a fireline around it. The air assault will be done. We can send those folks back to their bases so they can go out and do it again. Then really the hard work starts. It's mopping it up.

Generally speaking, a lot of these fires, you're not going to have access to water. You're not going to use hoses or an engine. You just can't drive to them. It's really just, we call it dry mopping, where you just stir dirt and ash and you just stir it like a big stew and cool dirt and the lack of oxygen as you mix the hot ash with dirt would just slowly put out the fire. For example, a one acre fire with no water source available — so you can't use pumps and hose or anything like that, you just have the dry mop it — will take about five days to put out by hand. It's not a very glamorous part of the job. The initial attack is the fun part where all the air tankers are flying. The helicopters are coming in. The jumpers are jumping. The ground folks are hiking in. You catch it, and then really four days of just dirty mopping up has to happen until you can really call it out, if you don't have access to water. If you have access to water, it speeds it up quite a bit.

Digging fireline is essentially removing the fuel away from the edge of the fire, so any brush, limbs — you're not going to cut down every tree, but you're going to limb the trees up so that — we call it ladder fuel — so that there's no ladder for the fire to climb up the trees. You remove the ladder fuel, maybe six to 10 feet high on trees. You remove all the brush. You grub with an ax and a grubbing end all the duff layer on the forest floor, you remove it down to mineral soil. And essentially, you'll have what we call a fireline. You'll have like a 10 foot fuel break with a two foot scrape, which means you have two feet of mineral soil line and then a 10 foot brushed out, a swath if you will. That starves the fire from fuel and usually you're right on the fire's edge so it just can't continue to move. You build that line all the way around the fire. That's how you do it by hand. Obviously, if you can use bulldozers, you can do with dozers and it makes it a lot quicker.

Hotshot crews are generally 20-person crews that are strictly built to dig fireline for the most part. I mean, they do a lot of other things. They have a lot of other talents. They do a lot of burnouts and backfires. But for the most part, they dig fireline around some of the toughest fires that we have in the country.

John Croft:
When you go and fight a particular fire, is it 24 hours a day, or is it daylight hours only? How does that work?

Josh Mathieson:
It really all depends. In aviation, generally speaking, it's a dawn to dusk endeavor. We do have night flying helicopters and air attack platforms that work at night. As far as ground based firefighting goes, it is a 24 hour effort. Obviously you don't necessarily work day-in and day-out for 24 hours. Usually you work in shifts of 16 hours and then eight hours off kind of a deal. But it's all divided up so that there's continuous coverage, 24 hours a day, until the fires out. We usually stay in camps, fire camps, so it's tent-based living. It's essentially camping. We have food, there's usually trailers that have food and even showers sometimes, in some of the larger camps. It's tent city basically, that's what we call fire camp.

John Croft:
Is there a fire season if you will, from what, June to September? Or what is the fire season?

Josh Mathieson:
It seemed like we used to have fire seasons. Now anymore, we call it fire year. Just the way our fire seasons are. They pretty much aren't seasons anymore. It's a year-round endeavor. So California, we may get rain and be out of fire season, but Florida's burning. Since we're national resources, we go all over the country. I was in Australia this winter from December through January, fighting their fires. It's not really a season anymore, unfortunately. It's kind of a year-round endeavor. It may not be in the area that I work here out of Northern California, but there's going to be a fire going on somewhere in the United States year round.

John Croft:
In terms of tying what we're doing with you together with Chief Nettles, have you worked with Chief Nettles and what's the coordination there?

Josh Mathieson:
It's kind of like what I alluded to earlier, whether I'm a ground-based firefighter working with Chief Nettles and he's an aerial supervisor coordinating all the orchestra of aircraft over an incident, the ground-based folks really rely on the aerial supervisors to tell us what we have. When you're down in 180-foot trees, you can't see where your fire's going. You can't see what the values at risk are, the houses out in front of it and stuff like that. So we rely on those aerial supervisors to tell us, Hey, you have 25 structures out ahead of this thing. I recommend starting evacuations. Or, This fire, once it hits that drainage, it's going to make a major run up to the top of the other ridge. Heavy reliance on aerial supervisors that tell us what's going on. To recommend tactics. Hey, what do you think about getting some air tankers to box this thing in? That kind of communication happens all the time.

You give me a two-acre new start with a hotshot crew, a load of smoke jumpers, a couple type one helicopters and an air tanker, and we're going to be pretty successful. It's really a team effort and I probably said that a lot during this conversation, but we just all rely on each other. From the air perspective, now that I'm in the air primarily working with the ground, there's nothing more satisfying than supporting folks on the ground. To see boots marching up a hill, digging line, as you're out in front of them, whether it's retardant or helicopters, trying to slow it down. Everybody likes to do stuff that is going to be supportive, that's going to help the overall success of the mission. I can't say it enough, how important that coordination and the teamwork aspect of this job is.

John Croft:
How about some candy for our aviation geek listeners? What kind of aircraft are we talking about on your side of the equation? What aircraft models?

Josh Mathieson:
There's a variety of aircraft that are used in firefighting. For example, the Forest Service lead planes right now are all King Air 200 model airplanes. The smoke jumper aircraft are Shorts Sherpa's. They're the B model Sherpa's. We use also Twin Otters, Dorniers. We don't have any DC-3s anymore, but we had those for a long time. The air tanker fleet is, there's just a variety of aircraft. There's everything from the S-2s that CAL FIRE uses. There's C-130s that are used. This year especially, we've been using the MAFFs, which are C-130s from the military. We have the RJs. We have BOC jets that we're using. There are 737s that are converted to air tankers now. DC-10s. There's a 747 that's been highly effective — 18, 19,000 gallons of retardant out of that airplane. It's incredible to see that gigantic 747 just flying in the mountainous terrain of the Pacific Northwest. Even the DC-10s are doing some amazing work right now, with just their ability to maneuver in the mountains. It's just something, that just 20 years ago, you just couldn't even imagine something like that happening. But the jet fleet for retardant delivery has really helped increase some of the amount of retardant that we're able to get to fires, the speed at which we can get it there.

John Croft:
We talked a good bit with Chief Nettles about retardant and why retardant and how it's used. From a perspective of the hotshots or when you were a smoke jumper, what does it mean when you see the retardant coming down? Tell us about that.

Josh Mathieson:
Retardant is exactly that, it's a retardant. It's going to slow the spread of the fire. It's going to allow you enough time to get around it. What it means to us is, if we can get retardant around pieces of the fire it's going to take us a little while to get to, it allows us to catch the fire frankly. If they can put retardant up on the head or the shoulders of a fire and allow us enough time to get an anchor point and work our way up to that, without it running away from us, that's huge. Retardant doesn't put out fires, firefighters put out fires. But retardant goes a long way to help firefighters catch fires. Without it, it sometimes can be a little overwhelming when you don't have the air support to back you up. It is important for people to understand that, that retardant will hold a fire in place for 12 to 24 hours, but it doesn't necessarily stop fires or put them out. People do.

John Croft:
Let's transition a little bit here. Let's talk about young people, people who want to get into the field. What are the best kind of people for this job? Where do they come from? What kind of training should they get and where do they apply for that matter?

Josh Mathieson:
This job isn't for everybody. Although everybody can do this job if they want to. This is a job that you don't make a lot of money. You're gone a lot from home. You're away from home quite a bit. But it's one of the most rewarding jobs that you'll ever have. You work with really great people. You get to be outside all the time and you get to go to some of the most pristine and beautiful areas, really in the world. You'll be above the Arctic circle in Alaska, where it's 24 hours of daylight in the middle of absolute nowhere, fighting fire. You can be in Yosemite. You could be in the Sierra Nevada's. You could be right on the ocean.

The job just offers so much of reward and adventure, and it really attracts those kinds of people that seek adventure. That don't want to have everything scripted for them. You don't know when the bell's going to go off. You could sit two weeks and not do anything and then all of a sudden you could be gone for two months. You have to like that kind of lifestyle. You have to like that adventurous, unknown kind of a thing. If you want to have predictability, this job isn't for you. But I think for folks that want to go out and do something, that means something and they want to work with really great people, and they want to work hard and they want to sweat and they want to see the world, and learn a little bit about themselves, about how far you can push your body.

I remember a shift when I was on a hotshot crew, 48 hours straight. Ran out of water. We all saved like a little bit of water in our canteens just to have it. But it's just that kind of thing. You just learn a lot about yourself and it's like, I can do that. It just gives you a confidence. Even if you spend a few years of fighting fire and you go out and you become a business person or you work in an office or whatever, you'll always have those memories and that pride of knowing that I was able to climb to the top of that mountain and catch that fire and push yourself that hard. It really is a great career, a great profession. No matter what you end up doing, if you spend a few years of doing this, you'll be better at whatever you end up going to.

John Croft:
I just want to say, we really appreciate you doing what you do and thank you so much for talking today.

Josh Mathieson:
Yeah. Thank you guys. It was a good conversation. I appreciate the opportunity.

Alison Duquette:
Well, now I know what dry mopping is and I have to say that I learned a lot from our conversations with Chief Nettles and John Mathieson. I can't believe it takes four days to put out a one acre fire.

John Croft:
Yeah, that's pretty incredible. Normally I'd try to come up with something witty, snarky, or pithy to close out an episode. But in this case, I'm just in awe that there are people like Nettles and Mathieson out there among us. They trade comfort and predictability for flames and chaos, all for the good of society and here's to them.

Alison Duquette:
And here's to another episode of The Air Up There. If you like what you're hearing, follow us on social media. We're on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Be safe out there and be well.