Aerial firefighting

"Aircraft support, firefighters suppress"

Firefighters on the ground use aircraft and other aerial resources to help them fight bushfires. Firefighting aircraft, regardless of their size or type, do not extinguish a bushfire on their own.

If you live in a bushfire-prone area, you need to have a well-prepared bushfire survival plan. You cannot rely on a fire tanker or firefighting aircraft to be available to protect and defend your home.

To find out more read the Aerial Firefighting Fact Sheet

We have developed an aerial firefighting capability including:

  • a fleet of aircraft
  • trained and skilled pilots and aircrews
  • volunteer airbase support personnel
  • fixed and mobile infrastructure.

Our aircraft and aircrew personnel provide these tasks during bushfire fighting operations in South Australia:

  • Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance – gathering bushfire information (including mapping). Incident management teams may use this for planning purposes. They may also use it to develop public safety information and/or emergency warnings.
  • Supervision and Command – coordination and control of firebombing aircraft. This includes implementing strategies and tactics and monitoring their effectiveness and efficiency.
  • Firebombing – aerial delivery of water and aerial firefighting products to reduce a bushfire's intensity or slow its spread to support ground firefighting operations.
  • Aerial Ignition – ignition of vegetation fuels (to help back-burning or burning out operations) by dropping incendiary devices or materials from an aircraft.
  • Crew Transport – transport of incident management, firefighting personnel and/or equipment by aircraft.

Some conditions can limit the effectiveness of aerial firefighting operations.

Warm atmospheric conditions

Aircraft operate more efficiently in denser air. As temperature increases, air density decreases. This has a dramatic effect on aircraft performance. On very hot days, aircraft may need to reduce their load capacities to operate safely. High air temperatures and low relative humidity will also reduce the overall effectiveness of firebombing operations on the ground as water content rapidly evaporates.

Strong winds

High-speed winds can reduce the effectiveness of firebombing operations.

If wind conditions are severe enough, we will suspend aerial firefighting operations until conditions improve.

Low visibility

All aerial firefighting operations are conducted according to Civil Aviation Regulations of Visual Flight Rules (VFR). This means the pilot must be able to see to avoid terrain and other aircraft, and to navigate by visual references. We may suspend aircraft operations in low visibility conditions until conditions improve and pilots are able to operate under VFR regulations.

Low visibility may also reduce the effectiveness of firebombing operations as targets and hazards in the fire area become obscured or undetectable. This makes conditions unsafe for aircraft to operate. Reduced visibility from fog, dust, smoke or cloud may also restrict aircraft from taking off and landing at an airbase.

Flights at night

Civil Aviation Regulations do not allow firebombing operations at night. All VFR operations must commence and conclude between first and last light.

For extra safety, CFS Standard Operating Procedures need all aircraft to be "on the ground" 30 minutes before last light, ensuring adequate time to safely return to an appropriate airbase.

Availability of ground support resources

Firebombing operations are only effective if followed up with intense firefighting activities by ground firefighting crews.

The main objectives of firebombing are to knockdown a fire edge, slow or halt its rate of spread, long enough for ground crews to access the fire line and mop up or supplement the knockdown process.

If ground crews cannot get to the fire edge due to terrain or access, then the fire will rekindle over time.


Vertical obstructions close to a fire area may limit aerial firefighting operations. Obstructions might include:

  • power lines
  • weather masts
  • radio and television transmission towers
  • tall trees
  • wind turbines

Where obstructions do exist, the pilot in command will undertake a dynamic risk assessment before the aircraft is committed. In some circumstances, aircraft will not be utilised because risks caused by vertical obstructions exceed safe operating conditions.

Our aerial firefighting fleet includes 26 contracted aircraft.

We do not own any of the aircraft in our aerial firefighting fleet. We contract aircraft for exclusive use service periods during the Fire Danger Season. International organisations have found that owning and operating aircraft is not economical, particularly when the aircraft are used on a seasonal basis (approx. 5 months of the year). Contracting aircraft over short periods (generally 3-5 years) allows us to be flexible with the selection, composition and placement of aircraft within our fleet. We can also embrace new aerial firefighting technologies and maximise financial resources.

Firebombing Aircraft

The firebombing aircraft fleet includes:

  • 14 x Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs)
  • 2 x Type 1 (High Volume) Helicopter

This gives us an adaptable fleet of aircraft that are suited to a diverse range of fire conditions.

Single Engine Air Tankers (Air Tractor AT-802)

When selecting aircraft for the aerial firefighting fleet, we consider:

  • how quickly the aircraft can be airborne
  • its capacity to operate from a short rough strip
  • its ability to be flown safely in steep terrain
  • its bombing capacity
  • the availability of skilled pilots
  • its cost-effectiveness.

The AT-802 fits all of these criteria. It is the largest single engine firefighting air tanker in the world today. This aircraft is a modern, turboprop initial attack air tanker that is fast, manoeuvrable and cost-effective. It perfectly complements our rapid initial attack philosophy.

Single Engine Air Tanker AT-802


Type 1 (High Volume) Helicopter (Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawk)

The Black Hawks can carry 4,500 litres of water and firefighting chemicals and can refill from open water sources in less than 60 seconds.

The FT4500 'belly' tanks on the helicopters can also be replaced with 3,400 litre Bambi Bucket systems for specialised operations.

The Black Hawks have a cruising speed of 230 km/h and be underway in less than 5-minutes.

The Black Hawks will primarily operate as a combined duo, with the ability to separate them for individual missions on the rare occasions they are required in different locations.

Black Hawk dropping water Black Hawk helicopter

Surveillance Aircraft

Surveillance aircraft on standby

Since the devastating Wangary fire on Eyre Peninsula and the Black Saturday fires in Victoria, timely and accurate community information on the status of bushfires has become much more important.

Surveillance aircraft play an important support role in gathering information needed for us to provide safety information and emergency warnings to the public.

These aircraft also play an important role in the safe and efficient command and coordination (Air Attack Supervision) of firebombing operations.

Our tactical coordination and strategic overview aircraft fleet includes:

  • 8 x helicopters
  • 2 x aeroplanes

We have a team of over 150 volunteer support personnel across South Australia. They:

  • set up and manage our aerial firefighting airbases
  • load single engine air tanker aircraft with suppressants and/or retardants
  • provide logistical support to heli tack aircraft like the Erickson Air-crane
  • provide welfare support to pilots and other aerial firefighting personnel.

All firebombing aircraft in the CFS fleet have the ability to drop water with aerial firefighting product additives.

We add Aerial Firefighting Products or suppression chemical additives to water to increase the effectiveness of firebombing drops. There are 3 classes of these products:

  • foam suppressants
  • water enhancers
  • long-term retardants.

We use a range of approved and commercially available products in each of the 3 classes.

We will only use products approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA maintains a highly specialised, comprehensive laboratory and field-testing program - the Wildland Fire Chemical System. The program tests products before their qualification and approval for use, for:

  • human and environmental toxicity
  • handling safety
  • biodegradability
  • corrosion of aircraft components
  • effectiveness.

Fire Suppressant Foam

Fire suppressant foams are a combination of wetting, foaming and surfactant agents (commonly used in shampoos and detergents), added to water. This improves its effectiveness through increased retention on vegetation fuel surfaces and reduced evaporation. We use foam to "knock down" a fire’s intensity to allow ground resources access to the fire edge.

Water Enhancers

Water enhancers, often referred to as gels, increase the viscosity, adherence ability, cooling time and wetting capability of water dropped onto vegetation by aircraft.

These products can also improve firebombing drop accuracy through reduced wind drift.

We use water enhancers as an alternative to foam for direct attack to knock down a fire. They are particularly effective in scrub or forest vegetation.

Long-term Retardants

Long-term retardants contain mineral salts that inhibit the vegetation's ability to ignite. They are designed to place on fuels ahead of a fire to stop or reduce the fire from spreading. Retardants remain effective even after the water in the mixture has evaporated. They are ineffective if a fire is spotting. The red colouring in the product is an iron oxide colorant. It allows pilots to see drops on vegetation from the air. It will eventually wash away after rain or break down over time with UV light exposure.

Key findings in research undertaken by the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) determined

"… for aircraft to provide effective assistance, they must be available at call, rapidly dispatched with minimal travel, and with logistical systems in place".

Since the mid-1990s, we have established procedures for the safe and efficient response of aerial firefighting resources to bushfires. These are based on an aggressive rapid initial attack strategy. Under this strategy, we have set up specific Primary Response Zones (PRZs) across South Australia.

PRZs are geographical areas where uncontrolled grass or bushfires may have serious consequences on life, community property, critical infrastructure, environmental or commercial assets.

We identified 4 PRZs for South Australia. These include parts of the:

  • Mount Lofty Ranges (MLR)
  • Lower Eyre Peninsula (LEP)
  • Lower South East (LSE)
  • Mid North (MN).

The size of PRZs are generally based on distances of no greater than a 50km radius from a nominated airbase, and flight times of less than 15 minutes to ensure initial attack success.

Aircraft Availability

We place firebombing and surveillance aircraft on active standby during peak periods of the Fire Danger Season at airbases at:

  • Brukunga (MLR)
  • Port Lincoln (LEP)
  • Mount Gambier (LSE)
  • Hoyleton (MN).

The main function of these aircraft is the:

  • rapid and early attack of developing grass and bushfires
  • provision of early and timely advice to the public.

Aircraft Dispatch

Aircraft on active standby are dispatched to any reported rural fire in PRZs. At the same time, we send the nearest CFS brigade.

The standard aircraft response is 2 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs), and 2 surveillance aircraft.

The initial dispatch of aircraft can be supported with the response of more firebombing aircraft if needed.

All areas outside of defined PRZs are considered the State Response Zone (SRZ). The main function of aerial firefighting aircraft in the SRZ is to aid ground resources to contain larger fires and/or protect specific assets, and provide accurate and timely advice to the public.

Aerial firefighting aircraft are not strategically located in this zone for rapid initial attack. The aircraft respond based on a specific request by an Incident Controller and approved at a state level.

We may pre-position aircraft in these areas based on exceptional predicted weather conditions to reduce response times.

Logistical systems

The CFS has established a network of over 40 strategic fixed-wing airbases and 13 helibases to support aircraft responses to high-risk bushfire areas of South Australia. These include:

  • Kangaroo Island
  • Mount Lofty Ranges
  • Fleurieu Peninsula
  • Lower and Upper South-East
  • Murray Mallee
  • Mid North
  • Flinders Ranges
  • Eyre Peninsula.

Firebombing is a demanding task for pilots. Pilots have to fly at low-level in reduced visibility and near other firefighting aircraft. If non-firefighting aircraft enter a bushfire area this makes their task more dangerous.

Air Services Australia (ASA) issues a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) annually to alert pilots to the safety issues associated with bushfires and the presence of aerial firefighting aircraft.

The NOTAM needs all aircraft that are not coordinated through the relevant state fire authority to remain clear of observed fires for a distance of 5 nautical miles and altitude of 3,000 ft above ground level.

Pilots are responsible for obtaining NOTAM information. This is available on the Air Services Australia website.

Ownership of recreational remote piloted aircraft (RPA) or drones has increased over recent years.

A small drone colliding with the tail rotor or engine intake of a helicopter or propeller of a fixed wing aircraft could cause the aircraft to crash.

If you operate a drone, you must comply with regulations, whether you are flying them for recreation or commercial purposes.

View information on the regulations for flying drones at Civil Aviation Safety Authority

If we detect a drone operating near a fire, we may suspend aerial firefighting operations until we consider it safe to resume. If we suspend aerial firefighting operations, we will instigate an immediate media alert to ask the operator to stop, or members of the community aware of the operator, to contact police.