Incredible View from Aircraft Dropping Retardant on Rim Fire

By Tom Yulsman | September 3, 2013 7:20 pm

A screenshot from a video showing the view from the cockpit of a California Air National Guard aircraft making drop of flame retardant on the Rim Fire. Click for the video.

Updated with comments from author Michael Kodas 9/3/13 | 

The image above is a screenshot from a mind-blowing video shot from the cockpit of a California Air National Guard C130J aircraft as the crew gets ready to drop fire retardant on the massive Rim Fire. As I watched the video, I was struck by how low and slow these aircraft fly — and the risks taken by the crews.

Is it worth the risk? The answer is not entirely clear. More about that in a minute. But first, make sure to click on the image and watch the video.

For me, a few things stand out. At about two minutes into the video, as the tanker is approaching the wildfire, someone in the crew says, “Oh, that’s kind of creepy.”

About two minutes later, as the plane is banking directly toward a wall of flames and smoke, he says, “That is unreal.”

And as if the view of Hades out of the cockpit window isn’t enough to create a sense of unreality, a synthesized female voice can be heard repeating, “LANDING GEAR, LANDING GEAR, LANDING GEAR,” over and over.

On a regular flight, this is supposed to remind the crew as they descend toward the ground not to do a belly landing. But in this situation, the point isn’t to land but to fly down to almost treetop level adjacent to a blazing inferno and, at low speed, drop retardant.

After watching the video, I’ve gained even more respect for what these crews do. With numerous deadly crashes over the years, including the one below captured in an amateur video, it’s obvious that they risk their lives every time they fly over a fire.

Are the risks they take worth it? Some say no — because, they argue, there is little evidence that dropping retardants on a fire actually makes much of a difference.

Among them is Richard A. Minnich, an expert in fire ecology at the University of California, Riverside. I interviewed him earlier this summer, when California’s wildfire season was just getting started. In a phone conversation, he told me that fighting wildfires with retardant drops is “founded on a myth.”

In explaining why he believes that, he says “count the calories.” What he means is this: Compare how much of a fire’s energy is prevented from expanding by a drop — “negative calories,” he calls this — versus how much energy comprises the fire overall. From my interview:

For every calorie an aircraft drops on land, during that moment of time when we’ve added negative calories . . . while that is happening, the flame line is putting out a thousand or a million calories. It’s not even close. The assumption is that we can just draw lines in the sand. They paint the landscape with [fire retardant] and the fires just go right past them. And only thousands of acres later does the fire stop. And guess what? Rain puts it out.

Others have a similar perspective, among them Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, or FSEE. “It looks good on television,” he said of retardant in an interview with Marc Lallanilla at Live Science. However, “there is no benefit to its use.” Moreover, retardants can have negative environmental impacts, including triggering algae blooms that can kill fish.

For it’s part, the Forest Service says it has taken steps to minimize environmental risks, and that laboratory testing as well as the experience of firefighters on the ground both show that retardant can help crews launch an effective ground attack.

“When enough people in enough places say retardant helps, we have to believe they’re not making it up,” Cecilia Johnson, fire chemicals technical specialist at the Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center, told the Associated Press last year.

My colleague at the Center for Environmental Journalism, Michael Kodas, is writing a book  (it will be the book) about wildfire. He’s done quite a lot of reporting on this issue, and I’ve emailed him to get his perspective. As soon as I hear back from him, I’ll post an update.

Update 9/3/13, 9:45p MDT: Michael got back to me. Here’s what he had to say in an email message:

Stahl and Johnson do a good job defining opposite ends of the issue. I interviewed them both for a story I did for last year.

Even ten years ago, firefighters were calling retardant drops  “CNN drops,” because they are often called for in situations where they look good on television but will have little impact on the fire. Part of the problem is that in much of the West, wildfires are wind driven events. During the Fourmile Canyon fire, here in Boulder, I heard one contractor announce that the fire wouldn’t have destroyed all the homes it did if they had just put his planes in the air when it broke out, but the wind was ripping at more than 60 miles an hour at that point.  It’s pretty difficult to fly a plane at low speeds into a canyon to drop retardant in those conditions, and often the wind just blows the retardant away.

Last year two P2V air tankers crashed on the same day – one belly landed in Utah and the crew survived. The other crashed into a fire in Nevada killing its two crew members. A couple months later a C130 from the Air National Guard crashed while dropping retardant, killing four members of its crew from the North Carolina Air National Guard. Statistically, according to Andy Stahl, firefighters’ odds of dying fighting a fire go up tenfold when they climb into a plane.

There’s a lot of politics behind getting the planes in the air. For one thing, the contractors with the planes want the work and politicians strive to get it to them. It’s also something that make government leaders look like they’re doing something about a disaster that they actually have little control over and, to some degree, appeases their constituents.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: select, Top Posts, Wildfire
  • Steve Outing

    Our military has long used drones to keep fighter pilots out of dangerous spots. Drones are now getting cheaper, and a huge drone industry is growing. I hope that as drones become less expensive and common for non-military uses, we’ll see firefighting agencies replace aging air tankers that occasionally kill their pilots with unmanned aerial vehicles.

    The case further can be made that a fleet of small sensor-equipped drones could continuously monitor valuable, fire-prone areas to spot new wildfires more quickly. Water/retardanet drones then could be dispatched to douse new small fires before they get out of control; that’s especially useful in areas that are difficult or impossible for fire crews to reach physically.

    Futurist Thomas Frey (, for one, has written on this topic.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Thanks for commenting Steve!

      A couple of things to consider: First, some experts say that by suppressing small fires in unpopulated areas, the Forest Service and other agencies have made the problem immeasurably worse. The reasoning: Suppression of every single small fire has allowed a build up of vegetation, providing a huge fuel source. So later in the fire season, and especially during a major drought, once a fire does get started, it burns far hotter and more violently, and spreads widely. By this reasoning, if we allowed at least some small fires to burn in areas where development would not be threatened, fuel loads would be reduced — and so would the size and intensity of fires overall.

      The other thing to consider is the main issue I brought up in the piece: It is not entirely clear that dropping retardants actually helps. Lastly, where’s the money going to come from?

      That said, all of these strategies should be considered as part of a major rethink of how we deal with fire and development. We should be having a conversation about ways to reduce risks for people, not just pulling their irons from the fire, literally, once they’ve put themselves in harm’s way. How do you feel about the fact that you and I are subsidizing people to put themselves in the way of wildfire? I think it’s stupid.

      • Steve Outing

        Tom: Yes, I glossed over the suppression debate. But for a fire-prone area (say, the Black Forest area north of Colorado Springs where fire destroyed hundreds of homes), it could makes sense for a fire-fighting district to tax those choosing to live in a fire danger zone in order to pay for drone fire surveillance during the most dangerous parts of the year, as well as additional fuel-clearing. That’s preferable to all of us paying the enormous costs of fighting the beast that that fire became and putting pilots’ lives at risk.

        From what I know of commercial drone development, it’s far cheaper than other methods. (Drones are about to save farmers a bunch of money by monitoring crop conditions economically.) The UAV lab at your own university will know much about this. Have you interviewed them on the wildfire topic?

        • Tom Yulsman

          In Colorado alone, 1.1 million people live in half a million homes within the red zone — the areas most at risk for wildfire. And the red zone in Colorado covers a huge amount of territory: I can’t conceive of a drone surveillance program that could keep 24/7 watch over all of that cost effectively. Let alone the entire West.

          The State of California has actually been amazingly effective at detecting fire ignitions shortly after they happen and extinguishing them before they get going. So there doesn’t seem to be a big problem with surveillance, at least there. But rapid suppression of small fires has contributed significantly to the increase in big, intense fires, some fire ecologists say. (Because suppression causes fuels to build up, and when a fire inevitably gets going despite the best efforts at rapid detection and suppression, it tends to be big, hot, and wild.

          Bottom line: We’re having the wrong conversation here. The issue isn’t detecting fires. The issue is how we manage them, and, more important, how we manage development in the red zone, and paying for protection of the development that already exists there.

  • domenico

    I am thinking that a better
    method to extinguish a fire is to use cold water (in addition of the
    retardants), using liquid ice to cool down water until 4 °C, or
    power coolers (using the engines to obtain energy).

    It is possible to obtain a
    greater depth of penetration of water into the hot zone, and it is
    possible to increase the heat extracted from the hot zone: it is like
    to use more water to extinguish the fires.

    • Foo Bar

      Domenico, here is a little chemistry and/or math for you.
      It takes 100 calories of heat to raise a gram of water from 0°C to 100°C.
      It takes 539 calories of heat to change a gram of 100°C liquid water into 100°C water vapor.
      Cooled water absorbs only a tiny amount more energy than ambient temperature water. It’s not worth the expense of machinery, time, and fuel for this purpose.

      • domenico

        It is necessary to use 540 Kcal to evaporate 1Kg of water.
        It is necessary to use 1 Kcal to raise the temperature of 1 degree Celsius.
        I can say (I am a swimmer) that in the sea there is a difference of the temperature near the shores, so that with a thermographic camera is possible to choice the best zone to take water (each degree give at least 1/640 of energy transport increase).
        If it is used liquid nitrogen to cool the water, then it is more efficient of dry ice, but it is better to transport of more carburant to cool the water (liquid nitrogen vehicle); I think that some liquid, or solid, gases can cool better of carburants, but it is necessary too complex technology.
        I am thinking that is possible to use great radiators to cool the water in fly, for example great radiators (with water for fire extinguish) in contact with the inner-upper metallic surface of the plane, to exchange heat with the external surface.

    • jetwarp

      They get the water by loading up from lakes or reservoirs into the belly of the plane. I would suspect you’d better have your landing gear up to do that. They must keep forgetting to do that.

  • Judy Zeeb This airplane would have helped. It can hold a lot of water. I heard a rumor that US Firefighters didn’t want it as it would curtail their overtime, but that seems like nonsense…

  • jetwarp

    Obviously, these pilots must have forgotten to raise the landing gear a bunch of times and somebody has to make sure they are constantly reminded. Can’t be too careful with these airplane jockeys.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Quite the opposite. They were not flying with the gear down. The automated warning voice comes on when they fly low and slow. They have just not yet figured out how to disable it. (Which for normal operations is probably a good thing.)

  • Virtuous2012

    Why can’t the rainmakers use their cloud-seeding skills to produce actual rain? Naive question, but I am curious.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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