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As civilian, reservist 'leads' in fight against forest fires

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Timm Huffman
  • HQ RIO

In a year that has seen nearly 9 million acres lost to forest fires, the most since 2006, one Air Force Reservist is playing a lead role in beating back the flames.

Col. Paul “Buster” Delmonte is an aerial firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service as a civilian. He is a lead plane pilot, escorting other aircraft, including the Air Force’s firefighting-equipped C-130s, in and out of target drop zones.

According to Buster, the fire season started out slow but has turned into a record-setting year. The pilot said everything hit at once in the second week of July. With only 15 USFS lead pilots to help fight fires from Florida to Alaska, he said resources are stretched thin. Over the past two and a half months, Delmonte has flown 51 missions, in seven states, on 29 different fires; and the season isn’t over yet. He’s currently working 12 days on, two off, and has fought fires in Montana, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California.

His position with the Forest Service is analogous to an airborne forward air controller, said Delmonte. He said he flies in over a scene, works with the ground commander to figure out what the priorities are, then connects with the tankers or helicopters and leads them onto the targets and de-conflicts the air traffic for safety.

In a typical mission, Delmonte will fly one of three airframes, a C90 King Air, DHC-6 Twin Otter or a DC-3, to about 100 feet above tree level, scouting for the best target. Once he has identified that, he returns to the tankers, which are in a holding pattern, and leads them, one-by-one, into the blaze. The USFS aircraft he flies are equipped with airshow smoke and Delmonte will inject this into the engine over the drop site to show the other aircraft precisely where he wants fire retardant dropped.

Delmonte became a Forest Service pilot in 2004 after a stint in the airline business. He said flying passenger jets lacked purpose for him, since he was used to flying tactical missions on active duty. He was furloughed by his civilian airline after the attacks on 9/11 sent the company into bankruptcy. A traditional reservist at the time, Buster spent time working on active duty orders at Air Combat Command. It was during this time that he found a posting on USAJobs for a USFS pilot in Ogden, Utah. He applied and was selected.

“I didn’t realize there was another venue that was mission oriented,” he said. “It’s a good translation of the tactical flying I was doing in F-16s.”

In addition to his normal duties as lead plane, Delmonte is also a certified smoke jumper pilot, flying firefighters into wildland areas where they parachute in to combat forest fires.

After being hired by the USFS, Delmonte also continued flying and advancing through the ranks as a traditional reservist. However, when he was promoted to colonel last year, he had to find a new, non-flying position. Not wanting to give up serving his country, Delmonte turned to the Individual Reserve to continue his career. In addition to gaining a more flexible schedule, he found a position that pairs nicely with his civilian job. The ink is still wet on his transfer paperwork, but once it dries, Buster will serve as the Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer for Utah.

EPLOs -- a group that includes close to 90 IMAs assigned to 1st Air Force’s National Security Emergency Protection Directorate, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida -- work closely with state and local emergency responders to coordinate federal military air support during natural and man-made disasters. They engage with key local, state and federal policy makers to build emergency response plans, capabilities, and operational procedures and identify potential shortcomings.

Delmonte feels his tactical training and experience has come full-circle with his civilian and military jobs.

“For 24 years, the Air Force trained and provided me with a world class tactical aviation foundation that I've been able to leverage in the complex wildland fire airborne environment. Now, as the Air Force Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer (EPLO) to Utah, I'm very fortunate to take what I've learned from the Forest Service and provide that perspective back to Defense Support of Civil Authorities," he said.

As Delmonte continues down the road of his two careers, he hopes his experiences on both sides of the fence will allow him to make a positive impact on the emergency response world. He also looks forward to the opportunity to serve his home state as an EPLO.

“It's always a bonus ‘fighting fires’ in Utah, knowing that this is my home and these are my friends," he said.

IMAs are Air Force Reservists assigned to active-component units and government agencies. They are managed by Headquarters Individual Reservist Readiness and Integration Organization, located at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, and serve over 50 separate major commands, combatant commands and government agencies.

Unlike traditional Reservists, who are assigned to Reserve units that regularly perform duty together, IMAs work with their active-duty supervisors to create a custom duty schedule that helps their unit meet mission requirements.

To learn more about the Individual Reserve, visit