Frequent Flyer Miles

Meet a firefighter who stays airborne above raging wildfires for eight hours a day.

story by Jim Whittington
photo by Kevin Abel

Think your job is stressful? Try flying over a raging wildfire for eight hours while you direct traffic for firefighters below. No movie. No magazine. And you don't even get a bag of peanuts.

Jerry Serbia doesn't get frequent flyer miles even though he flies in an airplane nearly eight hours a day.

The reason Jerry doesn't get free trips to Fiji or Bermuda is because he's not flying commercial. No security lines. No peanut bags. No kid kicking the back of his seat.

Jerry's on a mission. A fire mission.

While most passengers would be reading magazines or watching a movie, Jerry is constantly on the alert. He's directing wildland firefighting helicopters, smokejumper aircraft, and air tankers from the cockpit of a small plane continuously circling a fire. This makes Jerry a special kind of BLM wildland firefighter commonly called an "Air Attack Group Supervisor."

"As Air Attack Supervisor," says Jerry, "my job is to manage the air space above the fire, direct the air tankers and helicopters to the critical areas for water or retardant drops, communicate with firefighters on the ground if I see a change in how the fire is behaving, and above all, make sure everyone stays safe."

Frequent Flyer Miles
photo by BLM Staff

Jerry looks out an airplane window for hours at a time, all the while talking to pilots and ground crews on the radio. Because of the nature of his job, flight time is limited to eight hours per day - which generally puts Jerry on the ground just minutes ahead of the limit.

"It's a critical job, but it can wear on you. The hardest thing mentally is keeping track of everything - while the hardest thing physically is looking out one side of the plane for hours at a time."

Fortunately, new technology such as mobile tablets helps Jerry by providing him with the ability to map fires in real time and then relay those details to the ground forces. In a rapidly flowing environment, timely data such as aerial hazards and critical areas like Sage-Grouse habitat along with updates to weather and radio frequencies are essential to the overall mission.

And by having both Jerry's eyes and modern digital information available up "in the cloud," the BLM can also provide regular updates to the public who live and work in areas near the fires.

BLM Fuels Specialist Mike Appling, a division supervisor in charge of a section of land with numerous firefighters and fire suppression equipment, works with Air Attacks as well as local fire departments and the public.

"It's not unusual for members of the public to find you and start asking questions," Mike says, "particularly when their home is threatened. I try to give them as honest an answer as I can and assure them that we know where their house is and every effort will be made to keep the fire from reaching their property."

Jerry Serbia finishes Mike's thought for all the firefighters with the BLM: "If people need us, we'll be there."

No frequent flyer miles necessary.

Visit us online for more firefighting photos and links to the BLM's Fire Resources Management Program.