Legislation to transfer 7 Coast Guard HC-130H’s to CAL FIRE lands on President’s desk

Much work still needs to be performed on the aircraft by the U.S. Air Force before they become firefighting air tankers

Air Tanker 116 HC-130H retardant
File photo of Air Tanker 116, an HC-130H, spraying retardant on a fire near Phoenix, June 22, 2017. Fox 20 Phoenix.

The amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 to authorize the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the state of California made it through the conference committee and was passed by both houses. It was given to the President on Friday and he is expected to sign it. The aircraft will be converted to firefighting air tankers capable of dropping at least 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

The part of the bill regarding the aircraft formerly owned and operated by the Coast Guard is a relatively small portion of the legislation that covers $717 billion in spending for the Department of Defense. It directs the Air Force to complete the center and outer wing-box replacement modifications as needed, programmed depot-level maintenance, and procure and install a gravity powered retardant delivery system in each aircraft.

The bill increases the maximum spending limits that were specified in the original 2013 legislation. The amount that can be spent on the retardant systems increased from $5 million to $7.5 million per aircraft, and the total amount spent on the entire project went from $130 million to $150 million.

In 2013, legislation directed that the seven aircraft be modified into air tankers and transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. So far at least two have come close to completing the modifications, but none of them have had retardant delivery systems installed, due primarily to delays in Air Force contracting. Occasionally one at a time has been spotted, T-116 or T-118, dropping retardant, using a Modular Airborne FireFighting System taken from the eight MAFFS units that are usually assigned to Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve squadrons. This fiscal year the administration decided, five years after the process began, that they are no longer interested in acquiring the HC-130H’s.

CAL FIRE has maintained a fleet of 23 S-2T air tankers for years that can carry up to 1,200 gallons of retardant. These seven HC-130H’s would be a very significant addition to their aviation program.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to MrCAPT1409.
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Senators ask Forest Service Chief about cutback in air tankers

In 2017 there were 20 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This year there are 13.

In a hearing Tuesday morning about the Forest Service budget for FY 2019 before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senators asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, about the reduction in the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts and the agency’s plans to rely on call when needed aircraft to fill the void.

Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief Forest Service
Ms. Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief, U.S. Forest Service, testifies April 24, 2018.

Lisa Murkowski (AK), Chair of the committee,  mentioned the issue during her opening remarks. Senators Maria Cantwell (WA) and Cory Gardner (CO) asked questions about what could be a shortage of air tankers, with most of the discussion centering around call when needed vendors. The Senators appeared to be concerned about the higher daily and hourly costs of CWN aircraft, and referred to the 48-hour time frame for them to mobilize after notification.

air tankers contract exclusive use 2000-2018

Ms. Christiansen tried two or three times to explain how activating CWN air tankers works and how the USFS makes decisions about when to bring them on board. Her descriptions were rambling as she talked about predictive services, but it was a little too ambiguous for some of the senators who asked for clarification.

Senator Gardner mentioned that this year there are 13 exclusive use large air tankers compared to 20 last year, and talked about how call when needed aircraft are more expensive than exclusive use aircraft. He said, “What is the rationale for that again?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we really look hard and do our analysis on the right balance between the exclusive use which is for an extended period of time and the call when needed. We take this very seriously and we will evaluate each year and adjust for the balance of these contracts. These next generation aircraft are more expensive than the legacy aircraft we had operated for the last two decades. So we have to be fiscally prudent and responsible in finding that right balance. We are confident that we have the aircraft we need when we need it through the combination of exclusive use, the call when needed, the military MAFFS, and then when we can call our partners down from Alaska and Canada.”

Senator Gardner continued: “Do you think you’re providing industry with enough certainty, private industry with enough certainty, to replace some of the contracts in the past that were coming out of the Forest Service in terms of the air tankers that were in use since the 2014 passage of the Defense Authorization Act?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator Gardner we are doing everything we can to be a good partner with the industry and exercise our fiscal responsibility.”

No one acknowledged the elephant in the room, the reason there are fewer air tankers. The budget that Congress approved and the President signed forced the reduction. Ms. Christiansen, a member of the administration, apparently feels that she has to be a good soldier and say, everything is fine, there’s nothing to see here: “We are confident that we have the aircraft we need”.

And the Senators don’t want to admit that they approved legislation which caused the number of EU air tankers to be cut by one-third. So they asked mild-mannered questions and didn’t follow up when the administration’s representative insisted that everything is going to be OK.

During a discussion about budget reductions on a different issue, Senator Joseph Manchin (WV) said, “Have you been able to push back on the administration, saying you can’t cut me this deep, I can’t do my job?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we have prioritized what we can do within these constraints…”

Senator Manchin: There’s a lot of us that will go out and …..”

Ms. Christiansen: “Our priority is on the National Forests, but I look forward to working with you on additional priorities.”

Meanwhile, John Hoven, the Senator from North Dakota, spent most of his allotted time presenting what was basically an infomercial about his state.

A recorded video of the hearing will be available at the committee’s website.

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)

****

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.