A ‘Plane’ view about wildland firefighters and a new Disney movie

Robert Westover
Office of Communication, U.S. Forest Service
July 18th, 2014 at 6:00PM

The U.S. Forest Service partnered with Disney, Ad Council, and the National Association of State Foresters to launch a series of wildfire prevention public service advertisements. This week’s opening of Disney’s animated movie, Planes: Fire & Rescue is especially exciting for the U.S. Forest Service because the agency played an important role in the production of the film.

Actually, no Forest Service employees appear in the new comedy-adventure, which features a dynamic crew of elite firefighting aircraft devoted to protecting the mythical Piston Peak National Park from wildfire. The agency’s role was an advisory one, giving access to firefighting facilities for Disney animators so that even as a cartoon, the movie has a degree of authenticity.

Teachable moments are important for both children and adults and the Forest Service is pleased that Planes is expected to provide many educational moments. This is why the Forest Service wants audiences to understand that even though the film depicts planes and other equipment doing the work of putting out forest fires, it is the hardworking firefighting force of humans who put out wildfires.

A Single Engine Airtanker, or SEAT, flies over a wildland fire dropping retardant. The aircraft in the movie play a very different role in wildfire suppression. In the movie, the aircraft themselves become somewhat human. Like the affable Dusty Crophopper, a former racer whose engine is damaged so he joins forces with veteran fire-and-rescue helicopter Blade Ranger. Dusty is an animated plane patterned after a small SEAT, or Single Engine Airtanker.

In real life, the small SEATs carry about 800 gallons of fire retardant that is usually dropped ahead of wildfires to reduce their intensity and to protect firefighters. Meanwhile, those on-the-ground firefighters use hand tools to build fire lines, chopping and digging away small trees and brush – anything considered fuel that could help spread the fire. Mechanical tools, like handsaws are used as well.

The Disney animated movies also introduces viewers to Dipper, a water scooper, Windlifter, a heavy-lift helicopter, and a host of all-terrain vehicles known as the Smokejumpers.

Forest Service helicopters like Windlifter siphon water out of lakes, rivers and other bodies of water by using hoses to fill large tanks or by dipping large “buckets” and then drop the water directly on burning grass, brush, and trees, to suppress flames or cool hot spots as firefighters on the ground continue their work. Other helicopters are used in wildfire suppression to move people around, haul cargo, drop fire retardant, safely help human rappellers descend into a fire and even used to start strategic fires.

Sure, the equipment is pretty cool stuff and, like the heavy tools and gear firefighters takes into battle against a raging wildland fire, they are very useful. But without dedicated wildland firefighting professionals on the ground both directly fighting and coordinating suppression activates in command centers on the ground, wildfires would burn out of control and do a lot more damage in the process.

Smokejumpers gather to get instructions prior to heading into a fire. In addition to being consultants with Disney, the agency, Ad Council, and the National Association of State Foresters worked together to launch a series of wildfire prevention public service advertisements featuring scenes and characters from the movie. They also created an Educational Activity Book for kids, which includes a teacher’s resource section.

Updated July 19, 2014