Coulson’s Air Tanker 131 being pushed out of the hangar at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, March 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Today two newspapers published lengthy and detailed articles about the shortage of large air tankers. The Missoulian’s has an emphasis on their home-town company, Neptune Aviation, while the Arizona Republic’s has several references to last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew. You will recognize the names of one or two of the people quoted in the articles.
Below are the introductory paragraphs:
Wildfire season officially begins April 28, and the U.S. Forest Service is heading into it with only three modern firefighting air tankers.
Missoula-based Neptune Aviation has one of those planes on contract. It argues to have two more, but competitors won a protest over Neptune’s no-competition award worth almost half a billion dollars over 10 years. By August, Neptune will have two more jets looking for work.
“We’re still cranking out air tankers,” Neptune CEO Ron Hooper said Friday. “But that’s the state of limbo we’re in. We’re waiting to see what the Forest Service will do.”
Meanwhile, one of Neptune’s six Korean War-vintage P2-V bombers saw seven hours of flying time on a wildfire in New Mexico last week. Of the five companies that received Forest Service “next-generation” contracts to provide seven new fire bombers last year, three have failed to deliver their planes.
National wildfire officials are urgently trying to reinforce an undersized and aged fleet of retardant-dropping air tankers in the aftermath of June’s deadly Yarnell Hill Fire, but as they gird themselves for a potentially treacherous 2014 season, significant improvements may be more than a year away.
Tom Harbour, national director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, said drought conditions have dried up the West since last summer, when monsoon rains spawned a bumper crop of fire fuels.
“You bet we’re concerned and worried about what’s going to happen,” Harbour told The Arizona Republic. “This puts us in a precarious position as we head into this new season.”
Harbour noted that numerous unusual winter wildfires already have erupted and been doused in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest and in drought-ravaged Southern California. State officials said on April 2 that 179 wildland fires already had been reported this year in Arizona alone.
The significance: “We could be off to a very early start,” said Harbour.
The Arizona Republic and USA Today are both credited with this video report, uploaded Saturday to YouTube, about air tanker shortages:
Air tankers available in 2014
The following Type 1 & 2 air tankers, commonly called “large” air tankers, will be available on exclusive use contracts this year:
- 8 — on the “legacy” contract, (1 Minden P2V, 6 Neptune P2Vs, and one Neptune BAe-146)
- 2 — on the “next-gen” contract (1 Coulson C-130H and a 10 Tanker DC-10)
- Possible: 5 other next-gen aircraft that received contracts on May 6, 2013 that may or may not become certified. The companies that still have not supplied the aircraft are Minden, Aero Air, and Aero-Flite.
Total: between 10 and 15. This does not include the two Neptune air tankers that were issued the sole source contract. That contract was protested, and the protest was upheld by the Government Accountability Office. The U.S. Forest Service can also call upon up to eight MAFFS military C-130 aircraft and can borrow some old CV-580s from Canada and Alaska if they are available. One additional DC-10 is on a call when needed contract and may be available if needed by the U.S. firefighting agencies.
Requests for air tankers that were unable to be filled
We have read several references recently about the number of requests for air tankers by wildfire incident commanders that were unable to be filled (UTF). We have been reporting on this issue for several years and updating it annually, but just to be sure the latest data is out there, below, again, is a graphic we put together from National Interagency Fire Center reports. The UTF numbers do not include the requests that were canceled, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere.
The actual numbers for the last three years: