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by the NFCC

Inappropriate or uncontrolled use of aircraft

Hazard Knowledge

At many wildfire incidents aircraft can provide important tactical support to ground teams and the incident commander. However, the inappropriate or uncontrolled use of aircraft at a wildfire incident can present significant hazards to firefighters, personnel from other agencies, members of the public, the environment and any other leisure, commercial or military aircraft that may be flying nearby. For example:

  • Aircraft and unmanned aircraft flown by members of the public who are not involved in suppressing the fire may inadvertently or deliberately fly over or near to the wildfire, presenting a hazard to both aerial and ground operations
  • Aircraft deployed at the incident may drop water or retardant onto or near to people on the ground, which may represent a significant life and health risk
  • Aircraft deployed at the incident may drop water or retardant onto or near to sensitive areas, potentially causing environmental damage (for further information refer to Hazard: Environmental impact)
  • Helicopters deployed at the incident may create downwash, which can cause flying debris and increase the rate of firespread

For the purpose of this guidance, aircraft include:

Aircraft may be used beneficially for a number of different purposes, including:

  • Aerial reconnaissance of the incident
  • Dropping water or retardant onto, or in front of, the fire
  • Moving personnel and equipment to, or around, the incident ground

Aircraft can also be used effectively to provide access to remote and otherwise inaccessible areas. At some wildfire incidents, the early deployment of aircraft may prevent a small wildfire from developing into a much larger, more costly, and more destructive fire.

While deploying aircraft may bring many benefits, fire and rescue services should also be aware that a number of factors will limit the effectiveness of aircraft at wildfire incidents and/or can present significant hazards to the aircraft, and to personnel on the ground, such as:

  • The terrain - steep slopes and mountainous areas make low-flying operations more complex and hazardous
  • Man-made structures - such as power lines and communication masts, can make flying conditions and water/retardant dropping hazardous
  • Weather conditions - high winds may make flying conditions dangerous and/or may influence the accuracy of water and retardant drops
  • Smoke and darkness - may have an impact on or restrict aerial operations
  • Vegetation - vegetation may prevent water or retardant drops from reaching the intended location on the ground or fire
  • Turnaround times for refilling aircraft with water/retardant and fuel may be lengthy
  • Delayed attendance times of requested aircraft may lead to an escalation of the incident, or other changes in the situation before their arrival at the incident
  • Animal behaviour - the presence of aircraft may affect animal behaviour