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Increase in Wildland Fires Heightens Aviation Safety Concerns

Working in and around aircraft is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in wildland firefighting.

During the past decade, the U.S. has experienced larger, more frequent and severe wildfires attributable to drought conditions, buildup of flammable vegetation, decline in snowpack and urban encroachment. If these conditions continue, experts say more fire response workers will be needed along with increased aviation support.

To identify aviation-related risk factors and make recommendations for improved safety, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) analyzed 13 years of data, from 2000 to 2013. Among 298 wildland firefighter fatalities during that period:

  • 78 (26%) were aviation-related occupational fatalities that occurred during 41 separate events involving 42 aircraft
  • aircraft crashes accounted for 38 events
  • pilots, copilots and flight engineers represented 53 (68%) of aviation-related fatalities.
  • leading causes of fatal aircraft crashes were engine, structure or component failure (24%); pilot loss of control (24%); failure to maintain clearance from terrain, water or objects (20%); and hazardous weather (15%).

To reduce fatalities, researchers concluded that stringent safety guidelines should be followed during all phases of firefighting, including training exercises. In addition, they found crew resource management techniques – which use all available resources, information, equipment and personnel to achieve safe and efficient flight operations – can be applied to firefighting operations.

Refer to Aviation-Related Wildland Firefighter Fatalities — United States, 2000–2013, MMWR, July 31, 2015 / 64(29);793-796.