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Timely Wildfire TFR Refresher

Kurt Kleiner, CFI/CFII; Interagency Fire Airspace Coordina | Published on 7/19/2023
Timely Wildfire TFR Refresher
by Kurt Kleiner – CFI/CFII and Interagency Fire Airspace Coordinator
After a cool and showery May and June, we are now rapidly transitioning
into wildland fire season in Montana, northern Idaho, and the Pacific
Northwest. This is a good time to review facts about Temporary Flight
Restrictions (TFRs) and best practices for operating in the vicinity of any
active wildfire, including those without a TFR.  During fire season, GA pilots
face a wide array of challenges, including some that might not be obvious.
•     Not all fires will necessarily have a TFR in place, even if a few aircraft
are assigned. Many factors are involved in the decision to implement a
91.137(a)(2) TFR. These include the time of day of the initial report and
response to a new fire, the expected growth and duration of the fire, the
number and type of aircraft assigned, the fire location and the structure
of the Airspace and any Special Use Airspace in the vicinity, the
suppression strategy selected by agency fire managers for a given fire,
•       If a fire does not have a TFR in place at the time you plan a flight, look
at weather data, and diligently check NOTAMs. Anticipate that a new
TFR could pop up at any time after departure. Be sure you have “TFRs”
selected on your device and switched on in your map display layers. If
you don’t have GPS or a map device that displays TFRs in real-time,
check with a Flight Service Station or Center (ARTCC) for updates
about any new TFRs along your route.
•      When planning a flight in the vicinity of known TFRs you may need to
carry extra fuel since you might have to deviate a considerable distance
around a TFR, or burn extra fuel to climb to a higher altitude in order to
transition over the top. A good recommendation is to climb to an altitude
at least 500-1000 ft. above the TFR ceiling. Before you depart, check
your aircraft performance charts for the expected Density Altitude since
this may not even be an option for your aircraft.
•       When operating well away from the edge of a TFR, expect to encounter
numerous fire aircraft transitioning back and forth between the fire and
various reload bases that are located several miles away from a fire.
The presence of thick smoke and degraded visibility will probably
reduce the effectiveness of your vigilant “see-and-avoid” strategy and
elevate the overall risk of your flight with many additional aircraft in the

•       In the reduced visibility of fire smoke, the likelihood of experiencing
spatial disorientation is elevated and very real. If you are not Instrument
rated and/or current, now is a good time to find a safety pilot or CFI to
practice your instrument scan and recovery from unusual attitudes. If
you encounter inadvertent flight into IMC due to smoke, a timely
standard-rate 180 degree turn back into VMC is often your best option.
•       If you are appropriately certified, current, and able, you may want to file
an IFR flight plan in lieu of flying VFR.  ATC will rarely vector you into or
through a TFR although they have the authority to do so per 14CFR
91.137(c.) if adequate traffic separation is assured. If you do fly VFR,
and you are in an area and at an altitude where Center can see you on
radar, request VFR flight following as an added measure of safety.
•       From a human factors perspective, you can expect that flying during
fire season may impose additional demands on any pilot in addition to
challenges with seeing and avoiding traffic and navigation. You may
experience other issues such as optical illusions in smoke, dehydration,
and added stress while maneuvering to avoid inadvertent flight into IMC
or into a TFR. Pay attention to increased workloads, task saturation,
stress, fatigue, and higher demands on your ability to make critical in-
flight decisions.
In summary, flight in degraded visibility and in the vicinity of wildfire TFRs
requires additional planning – selecting the best route, alternate routes, fuel
consumption, and aircraft performance.  As with any flight, have a
contingency strategy in place and be ready to execute your “Plan B” or
“Plan C” as a way to escape worsening conditions. Increase your personal
minimums to give yourself a wider safety margin. Know that fire season is
temporary, and it might be worth postponing that trip you feel compelled to
take until clearer days when fire season is winding down.