Opinion: I am tired of complaints about the cost of fighting wildfires

Firefighting and warfighting are both expensive

Above: Whoopup Fire, Wyoming, 2011

The large air tankers on exclusive use contracts have been cut this year from 20 to 13. In 2002 there were 44. This is a 73 percent reduction in the last 16 years.

No scooping air tankers are on exclusive use contracts this year.

The large Type 1 helicopters were cut last year from 34 to 28 and that reduction remains in effect this year.

Some say we need to reduce the cost of fighting wildfires. At first glance the above cuts may seem to accomplish that. But failing to engage in a quick, aggressive initial attack on small fires by using overwhelming force from both the air and the ground, can allow a 10-acre fire to become a megafire, ultimately costing many millions of dollars. CAL FIRE gets this. The federal government does not.

Meanwhile the United States spends trillions of dollars on adventures on the other side of the world while the defense of our homeland against the increasing number of acres burned in wildfires is being virtually ignored by the Administration and Congress. A former military pilot told me this week that just one sortie by a military plane on the other side of the world can cost millions of dollars when the cost of the weapons used is included. The military industrial complex has hundreds of dedicated, aggressive, well-funded lobbyists giving millions to our elected officials. Any pressure on politicians to better defend our country from wildfires on our own soil is very small by comparison.

I am tired of people wringing their hands about the cost of wildfires.

You can’t fight fire on the cheap — firefighting and warfighting are both expensive. What we’re spending in the United States on the defense of our homeland is a very small fraction of what it costs to blow up stuff in countries that many Americans can’t find on a map.

Government officials and politicians who complain about the cost need to stop talking and fix the problem. The primary issue that leads to the whining is that in busy years we rob Peter to pay Paul — taking money from unrelated accounts to pay for emergency fire suppression. This can create chaos in those other functions such as fire prevention and reducing fuels that make fires difficult to control. Congress needs to create the “fire funding fix” that has been talked about for many years — a completely separate account for fires. Appropriately and adequately funding fire suppression and rebuilding the aerial firefighting fleet should be high priorities for the Administration and Congress.

Maybe we need some teenagers to take on this issue!

President proposes some reductions in wildland fire budget

Above: The President’s proposal for funding wildland fire in the U.S. Forest Service in Fiscal Year 2018. Source: USFS.

(Originally published at 6 p.m. MST November 9, 2017)

While the federal government keeps throwing additional billions of dollars at the Department of Defense to fund our adventures in countries on the other side of the world, the budget for the war against wildfire in our homeland would be cut in some areas while most functions would remain flat if the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018 is approved by Congress.

In May the President proposed budgets for the Forest Service and the four primary land management agencies in the Department of the Interior: Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  However, Congress, as usual, has not finalized appropriations bills for these agencies for Fiscal Year 2018 which started October 1, 2017. The House passed a version in September, but the Senate has yet to take meaningful action.

The agencies have been operating on a continuing resolution (CR) which expires December 8. It is likely that some kind of showdown will happen around that date, with the worst case scenario being a government shutdown. Or, they could keep passing successive CRs for the rest of the fiscal year, which would lock the funding into the FY 2017 numbers. Of course, CRs were in effect for all of FY 2017. Apparently our elected Senators and Representatives think they have better things to do than fund the government.

If Congress actually does pass a funding bill for these land management agencies, the line by line details and numbers will most likely be different from the President’s proposals, but below we spell out what the administration would like to see happen this fiscal year that started October 1.

Forest Service

In the FS as a whole, the President would like to reduce the number of employees (jobs), cutting the number of staff-years by 5.7 percent. Wildland fire personnel in the FS would remain the same — a total of 10,000, including 67 Interagency Hotshot Crews, 7,940 other firefighters, 320 Smokejumpers, and 400 Fire Prevention Technicians. Fire Suppression would be funded at the 10-year average.

The exact numbers and trends are difficult to track because the Base 8 (the first 8 hours of a firefighter’s regular work day) will now be paid out of Preparedness rather than Suppression. And funds for Hazardous Fuels are shifting from fire funding to National Forest System accounts.

In 2017 the FS reduced the number of the largest helicopters, Type 1, from 34 to 28. The President aims to retain that smaller number. Type 2 and 3 helicopters would remain the same at 33 and 46, respectively. The two water-scooping air tankers in the FS would be eliminated completely, while they add one Single Engine Air Tanker, up from zero in 2017. The FS looked at the two years they had the scoopers as an experiment, even though they have been used successfully in Canada, France, Greece, and Spain for decades.

In 2002 the FS had 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. In 2017 they had 20, consisting of 16 Next Generation air tankers and 4 Legacy P2V’s. With the 50+ year old P2V’s now retired, the agency expects to have “up to 20” Next Gen air tankers in FY 2018.

The budget proposal includes funding for only one of the seven HC-130H aircraft obtained from the Coast Guard in December, 2013 that are supposedly being converted into air tankers. The one that has been used for a couple of years is still not completely transformed, and is using a borrowed pressurized Modular Airborne FireFighting System for dispensing retardant rather than employing a conventional permanent (but removable) internal gravity-powered tank.

The budget document has a rather cryptic sentence about air tankers:

Beginning in 2018, the Forest Service will transition to a full cost recovery business model for aviation utilized by cooperating agencies.

We asked a few Washington Office folks what that meant, and they either didn’t know or failed to respond to our inquiry. One person told us that unclear writing in the document could be the result of a changing of the guards and the reviewers not fully being in place at the Departments and the Office of Management and Budget.

The agency has always charged cooperating agencies for the use of FS aircraft, but it sounds like the price will increase. They may tack on in addition to the hourly rate, additional charges such as working capital fund fees that go toward purchasing replacement aircraft at the end of its life cycle.

The President wants to eliminate the agency’s $6,901,000 contribution to the Joint Fire Science Program  (JFSP) which receives its funding through the FS and the Department of the Interior (DOI). According to the budget proposal document:

The JFSP would focus on completing existing projects and standing down science exchange with managers. New research in the Smoke Management and in the Fuels Treatment lines-of-work would be eliminated, as would new research in the Emerging Management Needs initiative. General fire research in the agency would be conducted through the National Fire Plan and the Forest and Rangeland Research appropriations.

The Department of the Interior intends to cut their JFSP contribution in half, down to $3,000.

The web site for the JFSP describes their work as  “funding scientific research on wildland fires and distributing results to help policymakers, fire managers and practitioners make sound decisions”.

The total budget for all research in the FS would be cut by 16 percent, from $329 million to $276 million.

Department of the Interior

The 2018 budget request for DOI’s discretionary Department-wide Wildland Fire Management program is $873.5 million. This is a decrease of $118.3 million, or 12 percent, from FY 2017. It would mean a reduction in Full Time Equivalent employees (FTE) from 3,586 to 3,401, or 5 percent.

The number of “fire personnel” would be cut by 140 personnel (jobs) from 4,221 to 4,081, or 3 percent. Smokejumpers would be reduced from 145 to 140, or 3 percent, and engines from 610 to 605, or 1 percent.

The numbers of all DOI firefighting aircraft would remain the same, except single engine air tankers would be cut from 34 to 32, or 6 percent.

Department of the Interior Fire Preparedness funding FY 2018
The President’s proposal for Department of the Interior Fire Preparedness funding for FY 2018. Source: DOI.

As stated above, the DOI’s contribution to the Joint Fire Science Program would be cut in half, to $3 million, while the FS will eliminate their share of funding the program.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

California lawmakers introduce bills aimed at drones

Lawmakers in California have introduced bills aimed at the growing proliferation of drones over wildfires. There were reports that five unmanned aerial vehicles temporarily shut down aviation operations on the North Fire in southern California, and it has previously been a problem at several other fires in the last year.

Below is an excerpt from the San Bernardino Sun:

…One state bill, SB167, would increase fines and make jail time possible for drone use that interferes with firefighting efforts.

And on Monday, Republican state Sen. Ted Gaines of El Dorado and Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Glendale also announced SB168, which would grant immunity to emergency responders who damage drones during firefighting or rescue operations.

Colorado Springs campaigning to host facility for aerial firefighting research

Colorado Firefighting Air Corps

(Originally published February 4, 2015; updated February 12, 2015)

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An organization in Colorado Springs is hoping the city will host the state’s new Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting. The Center was authorized in legislation signed by Governor John Hickenlooper last May which also provided funds for firefighting helicopters and air tankers. The state began contracting for helicopters last summer, and purchased two Pilatus PC-12 fixed wing aircraft to be used for the early detection and persistent surveillance of wildfires. Lawmakers also appropriated  $700,000 to establish and operate the Center in its first year, which is expected to be 2015.

The purpose of the Center, according to the legislation, is to:

  • Serve as a laboratory to evaluate the “three fundamental contributing factors to successful aerial firefighting: effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability”.
  • Conduct research to evaluate new technology in a variety of settings, such as initial attack, night operations, and operations in wildland-urban interface areas.
  • Produce data and documentation on science and technology relevant to aerial firefighting.

One of the members of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance trying to land the Center in their city is Tony Kern, former national aviation director for the U.S. Forest Service.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Csindy.com:

…The center, to be opened before the end of this year, will bring at least eight jobs. But more importantly, it could spark interest from companies working to develop technology for innovative wildland firefighting, Kern says, and prompt them to set up offices here.

“We have had the two largest wildland-urban interface fires in America in the last three to four years,” Kern says, referring to the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires. “We have the experience and the background. We are motivated and experienced in that whole area.”

In addition, Kern points out, the region offers a central location on the heavily populated Front Range; proximity to military assets that could become part of the research effort, including Fort Carson’s helicopter unit and the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base; and an airport with low rates of weather-related closure and few traffic delays for take-off, due largely to its low number of commercial flights.

Ryan May Hardy wrote an article for the Colorado Springs Gazette on February 12 with more details about the competition for the site of the Center.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.

Colorado Governor to sign aerial firefighting bill

Colorado Firefighting Air CorpsOn May 12 Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper will sign the legislation recently passed by the House and the Senate that authorizes the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) to acquire a fleet of helicopters and air tankers to fight wildfires. 

The Governor will host a press conference at 11 a.m. at the Centennial Airport where he will sign the bill and give his annual wildfire briefing.

Colorado Senate Bill 14-164 appropriates $19.67 million and specifies that the CFAC purchase, lease, or contract for the use and operation of up to three helicopters in 2014. Beginning in 2015 and beyond the bill authorizes up to four air tankers.

The first version of the bill required certain specifications for the aircraft, including that the helicopters be able to carry 18 passengers and be capable of rappelling firefighters. The air tankers would have been outfitted for dropping retardant at night, something that has never been done on a regular basis.

The bill that passed both the House and the Senate provides maximum numbers of aircraft, but leaves everything else up to the CFAC. The bill requires that the agency adhere as nearly as possible to the recommendations spelled out in a report they released on March 28, titled “Special report: Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, report to the Governor and General Assembly on Strategies to enhance the state’s aerial firefighting capabilities”.

firefighting aircraft bill passed by both houses in Colorado

The legislation also creates a “center of excellence for advanced technology aerial firefighting”, to…:

  • Serve as a laboratory to evaluate the “three fundamental contributing factors to successful aerial firefighting: effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability”.
  • Conduct research to evaluate new technology in a variety of settings, such as initial attack, night operations, and operations in wildland-urban interface areas.
  • Produce data and documentation on science and technology relevant to aerial firefighting.

The press conference will be held at the Centennial Airport, Denver jetCenter, Hangar A, 7625 South Peoria Circle, Englewood, Colorado 80112.

If any FireAviation readers attend the event do us a favor and send us some photos.

Colorado Senate passes modified air tanker bill

Tim Holmes P2V
The second place entry in our contest to Photoshop an advertisement onto an air tanker. A Colorado state Senator suggested that ads on firefighting aircraft could generate revenue for the state. This image shows the Colorado Rockies logo on a P2V, by Tim Holmes.

On Friday the Colorado Senate unanimously passed a revised version of SB14-164, completing another step towards the state being able to issue contracts for firefighting aircraft. If the House passes the same version of the bill, this year there would be up to three helicopters fighting wildland fires in the state and in 2015 they could add up to four large air tankers to the fleet.

This version of the bill is very different from the one that was first introduced, which listed numerous specific requirements for the types and capabilities of the aircraft, including night flying air tankers, which would have been the first on the planet Earth.

Colorado SB14-164, April 25, 2014

The configuration of the bill allows and actually states, that the legislators intend for the subject matter experts that will work for the Colorado Firefighting Air Corp (CFAC) to make the decisions about the specifications of the aircraft. The legislation when it was introduced took many of those decisions out of the hands of the fire aviation specialists. Instead, they were made by politicians who had no applicable expertise. The current version passed by the Senate requires that the CFAC adhere as nearly as possible to the recommendations as presented in the Special report: Colorado firefighting Air Corp, report to the Governor and General Assembly on strategies to enhance the state’s aerial firefighting capabilities, which was released March 28, 2014.

The bill allows the CFAC to use 19.3 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions, or employees, in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2014.  A previously passed bill, “FY 2014-15 Long Bill”, appropriated $19.67 million for the Division of Fire Prevention and Control to acquire aircraft.

The legislation also creates a “center of excellence for advanced technology aerial firefighting”, to…:

  • Serve as a laboratory to evaluate the “three fundamental contributing factors to successful aerial firefighting: effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability”.
  • Conduct research to evaluate new technology in a variety of settings, such as initial attack, night operations, and operations in wildland-urban interface areas.
  • Produce data and documentation on science and technology relevant to aerial firefighting.

Since the Senate has passed the bill, it is now up to the House, where it was introduced April 25 and referred to the Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources Committee.

Colorado releases aerial firefighting report

Colorado Firefighting Air CorpsThe long awaited report required by the Colorado legislature about options for aerial firefighting in the state was released today by the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC). The CFAC was created but not funded last year, and the next step is for decisions to be made about what aerial resources the state will acquire, if any, and then possibly, provide funds to operate them. The 103-page report, titled “Report to the Governor and General Assembly on Strategies to Enhance the State’s Aerial Firefighting Capabilities“, has a number of recommendations:

  • Increase the number of Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) on exclusive use contracts from two to four.
  • Contract for the exclusive use of four Type 3 or larger rotor-wing aircraft. (Type 3 helicopters can carry 100 to 300 gallons.)
  • Contract for the exclusive use of two Type 2 or larger air tankers. (Type 2 air tankers can carry 1,800 to 3,000 gallons). The contingency, if the State is unable to contract for two air tankers, is to contract for two helitankers, or a combination of one fixed-wing air tanker and one helitanker.
  • Develop early detection and remote sensing capabilities by securing two fixed wing aircraft equipped with modern fire-detecting sensors that would be operated to actively identify and locate small fires in high-risk wildland and wildland urban interface areas. The report explains that these aircraft will help achieve “the goal of generating an incident assessment for every fire within 60 minutes of report or detection”.

In addition to assessing every fire from an aircraft within 60 minutes, the report also recommends that the “appropriate aviation suppression resources be delivered to the fire” within 60 minutes. These two goals, if accomplished, would be a major step forward, not only for the state of Colorado, but for most states and federal agencies. Of course CAL FIRE can usually deliver retardant to a fire within 20 minutes of the first report, but that is a very high bar.

The state government of Colorado has very little in the way of wildland fire initial attack capability, and relies on local agencies for fire protection. In fact, the report admits:

Colorado does not have the ability to deliver an appropriate and timely suppression response to small fires while they are still small.

The report mentions several alternative aircraft for acquisition and conversion to air tankers, including S-3, C-27J, and C-130 from the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program. It basically threw out the S-3 for performance reasons, and said that there were no C-27Js available in the FEEP. Contrary to popular belief, it said, there were no C-130s available either. Another aircraft considered was the MD-10 that possibly could be donated by FedEx. That option was not chosen, because they:

…present much the same issue as surplus military aircraft that do not already have a proven, fielded system; that being it could add significantly to both cost and time to implement. Additionally, the age and condition of the donated aircraft could cause significant inspections and revitalization.

In addition, the cost of the engineering needed to modify the MD-10 for a retardant tank, avionics, and related equipment in order to obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) could cost between $30 and $40 million. Installing the retardant system could add another $10 million for each aircraft.

In discussing the problems with locating and obtaining information about the Waldo Canyon and High Park Fires during the early stages, which together killed three people and burned 605 homes, the report said:

Colorado’s remote sensing fixed wing aircraft would be on site within approximately 30 minutes of launch and would employ thermal imaging sensors to survey the reported area. The fire would be located and mapped, and this information would be loaded in real time to the state’s information management system [a new system the report recommends] . Within an hour of the first report of smoke, the local incident commander would have access to a map of the fire, ingress and egress paths, fuels involved, fire behavior, values at risk, weather forecast, and other data needed to make informed decisions regarding the appropriate management response.

In spite of the recommendation in the report that the aircraft be provided by contractors, there is another recommendation (on page 48) saying:

…the government-owned/contractor model presents the most attractive mix of affordability and efficiency. If the initial purchase cost of the airframes precludes this option, the contractor-owned/contractor-operated model is also a reasonable approach.

Then, to confuse the issue further, in the next paragraph it says:

It is not recommended to pursue the government operated model.

The report optimistically expects that the contracted helicopters and air tankers would begin operations within six months of “program initiation”. Apparently the state of Colorado has a contracting department that is many times more effective than the one operated by the U.S. Forest Service, but that is a very low bar.

They expect the two Type 2 or larger air tankers to cost $11.9 million and the four Type 3 or larger helicopters to cost $4.7 million for exclusive use contracts each year. It appears they want to purchase the two “multi-mission fixed wing aircraft” at a cost of $10 million plus $1.7 million for operations, maintenance, and training.

The total cost for the aviation program, including miscellaneous costs for insurance, equipment, hangar leases, etc, would be $33.6 million the first year and $23.6 million in subsequent years.

 
Thanks and a hat tip go out to Bean.

State Senator organizes air tanker demonstration

A Colorado state senator who is also a candidate for county Sheriff hosted a demonstration for an air tanker yesterday. Senator Steve King, who has been very outspoken about the need for the state to have their own aerial firefighting resources, invited Coulson to display their C-130Q air tanker at the Centennial airport on the southeast side of Denver. The aircraft, which has a contract with the U.S. Forest Service, conducted a drop near the runway after flying in from their base in Sacramento.

The video below details some of the sophisticated imaging and mapping capabilities of Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, including identifying targets and a data link for transferring them to the C-130.

Interior of the S-76
Interior of the S-76. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Another report on the air tanker demonstration that has better shots of the C-130 drop can be found at KWGN.