(This reflection was written on January 23, 2020, by Sue Stewart, en route to a tour of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California.)

by Sue Stewart

Last night we heard the horrifying news that an airtanker crashed while on a mission in Australia. The wildland fire community worldwide felt another blow to the heart as we received confirmation that three more of our own, the crew aboard the Coulson C-130, lost their lives.

Sadly, these fatalities were not the first in Australia this season. They have lost firefighters, aviators and citizens and with each loss we mourn. Every aviator, every firefighter is our own, no matter where they are, no matter which logo is on their gear.

We know from painful experience that despite all of our training and experience, our ability to make risk-informed decisions to minimize the chance that lives will be lost, we can’t ever completely eliminate that risk, especially with extreme and wide-spread deployment of resources in response to record setting conditions. With that many moving parts over a long enough period of time, the odds are that tragedy will strike.

Fire season in Australia is far from over, and the challenges of the northern hemisphere await this summer. We focus on trying to get better, stronger and smarter. We dedicate ourselves to our training, our fitness, our skills with analytics, our fuels reduction work and creation of defensible space to try to cheat the fire and tip the scales in our favor.

That’s how we remember and honor our fallen.


Sue Stewart is Director of Fire and Aviation in Region 4 (Intermountain Region) of the US Forest Service.


C-130 Aircraft Incident Update, Coulson Aviation (January 23, 2020).