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NATCA Members Work Fire Towers Amid Heavy Wildfire Season

As wildfires continue to burn in the Northwest Mountain and Western Pacific Regions, NATCA members are volunteering their time and services at mobile fire towers. During wildfire season, temporary fire towers are brought in to help the National Forest Service and organizations like the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) control the airspace over wildfires. Aviation safety specialists support critical firefighting efforts at these towers.

“It’s rewarding to interact with appreciative pilots despite their long hours and grueling conditions,” said Spokane ATCT (GEG) member Ray Peters, who has had the privilege of supporting firefighting operations at three separate temporary towers: Coeur d’Alene Airport (COE), Idaho County Airport (GIC) in Grangeville, Idaho, and Methow Valley State Airport (S52) in Winthrop, Wash. “Controlling at these towers has brought perspective to a side of aviation that we don’t often get to see from our radar consoles or tower perches. The experiences have also challenged me professionally to expand the tools I have and creatively adapt to unfamiliar environments.”

Billings ATCT (BIL) member Scott Buchanan also worked at his first fire tower this past summer. “I had been hearing about them for years and was excited to head out ‘into the field,’” he said. “I have experience working at deployed airfields while in the military and am always up for an adventure. This was a great experience and break from the normalcy of regular traffic and training.”

At COE, Buchanan worked with three other controllers and a supervisor, all doing six-day details. “A local controller, ground controller, cab coordinator, flight data person, and supervisor were all needed, and it took three people to run COE most hours,” added Buchanan. “While these fires are unfortunate and some of these fire towers can be intimidating, as long as fires like this are happening, it is a good learning experience for controllers to get a chance to work in a fire tower. I’m staying on the volunteer list to go again.”

“It’s rewarding to assist with these important fire fighting efforts, and working these towers is a good learning opportunity,” said Peters. “We often get ingrained in our way of moving traffic under the procedures and airspace we’ve grown accustomed to at our facilities. Working a fire tower provides a challenge to step outside that comfort zone as you navigate new ways of controlling the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic.”

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