The National Interagency Fire Center has released their annual summary of wildfire activity in 2013. In the aviation section one of the stats we always find interesting is the number of requests for large air tankers that are unable to be filled (UTF). That is, when firefighters officially submit a request for an air tanker but there are none available because all of them are committed to fires, they are on their day off, or they have a mechanical problem.
An air tanker having a day off is ridiculous, especially when the fleet size has atrophied from 44 at the beginning of 2002 down to nine when the 2013 fire season began. But that is the way the U.S. Forest Service writes their contracts for large air tankers.
During the 2002 fire season the wings literally fell off two air tankers, killing five aviators, causing the USFS to begin grounding the older museum pieces that summer, continuing the process into 2004. Since then the UTF rate has been climbing. Much of the time when firefighters need air tankers there are none available, reaching a high of 48 percent in 2012.
After 2004 when the groundings settled down and the fleet size ranged from 9 to 21, the average UTF rate was 26 percent. In 2013 it was 21 percent. Before the two wing failures, with 40 air tankers on contract the average UTF rate was 7 percent for 2000 through 2001.
In articles like this pointing out how the air tanker fleet has decreased by 75% over the last 11 years, we usually mention that air tankers don’t put out fires. Under ideal conditions of moderate burning conditions without a strong wind, they can sometimes slow down a fire making it easier for firefighters on the ground to make better progress and actually stop the fire. It is one tool in the toolbox. But an *aggressive, prompt, initial attack with overwhelming force both on the ground and from the air is more likely to keep a new fire small than what we have seen in recent years with reductions in the number of firefighters and aircraft. An aggressive attack can prevent a small fire from becoming a megafire that can cost over $100 million.
In 2013 there were nine fires with suppression costs exceeding $10 million. The Rim Fire in and near Yosemite National Park ran up bills amounting to $127 million.. And those dollar figures do not include the damage to privately owned property or the lives lost. Information provided by the USFS shows that 11,625 homes burned in wildfires over the last three years; and they don’t have records for ALL structures that burn in wildfires across the nation. If those houses had an average value of $100,000, we are looking at a monetary value of $1.1 trillion. During that three year period 60 people were killed in wildfires, including firefighters and local residents.
While the number of acres burned in wildfires in the United States in 2013 (minus Alaska) was lower than the recent trend, the number of air tanker requests that were filled (1,017) was four times higher than the average between 2002 and 2012, which was 252 per year. The year with the second highest number of filled requests since 2002 was 2011 when large air tankers were requested 407 times.
We are at a loss to come up with a reason for the unprecedented increase in the number of filled requests, in a year that had the fourth lowest number of acres burned in the lower 49 states in the last 10 years. The number of requests for large air tankers was 1,343, compared to an average of 434 per year.
The information in this report might be 100 percent right and truthful. But, sadly, we are now forced to look at these and other statistics coming out of Boise and the Interagency Fire Center and consider that they may or may not be accurate. We learned a lesson after the U.S. Forest Service issued their “FY 2013 Aviation Safety Summary” last month which claimed there were no USFS aircraft accidents in the last three years. At least four accidents since 2008 with a total of nine fatalities, including the 2012 crash of the MAFFS air tanker on a USFS fire which killed four aviators, do not show up in their stats. Nor are they even mentioned anywhere in the report. Their use of imaginative criteria for leaving out certain accidents made it appear that they had a pretty good accident record, when the opposite is true.
That lesson learned means we now have to look at these Boise reports and question their accuracy. This is really unfortunate. It casts doubt on reports and statistics that might have the potential for us to learn other lessons that could enhance the safety of firefighters at the point of the spear — busting their asses out on hot, steep, dusty, smoky, rocky slopes in the middle of nowhere for weeks at a time.