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!

Only 40% of requests for Type 1 helicopters were filled on wildfires in 2017

Last year the U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of Type 1 ships by 18%.

Above: N137BH, a Sikorsky 70A or “Firehawk” helicopter, flies to refill its water bucket after dropping on the Rankin Fire in South Dakota September 13, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 5:34 p.m. MT February 8, 2018)

The stats are in for the use of firefighting helicopters in 2017. The number of requests for Type 1 helicopters was close to average, but the number of orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) was almost double the number of filled orders. In 2017 60 percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

Type 1 helicopters are the largest used on fires, carrying 700 to 2,800 gallons.

One important change in 2017 was the 18 percent reduction in the number of Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contract. For several years the U.S. Forest Service had contracted for 34 EU Type 1 ships, but reduced that to 28 in 2017.number type 1 helicopters firefighting order requests filled

These contracts require continuous availability throughout the mandatory availability period, which can be 180 days or more. Other helicopters may or may not be procured on a Call When Needed (CWN) contract. A CWN aircraft could be tied up on something else or undergoing heavy maintenance when the phone in the office rings asking if they can respond to a fire. And CWN aircraft cost the government much more to operate than EU resources.

These large helicopters are beloved by wildland firefighters, since they can strategically drop with pinpoint accuracy thousands of gallons of water or retardant while working close air support with ground personnel. This can cool and slow the spread of the fire, enabling crews to work nearer the fire edge. A series of water drops can enable hand crews to make steady progress on active flanks of the fire. Helicopters can often refill with water from a nearby lake or tank, making 5 to 15 minute turnarounds. A fixed wing air tanker that has to refill at an airport takes much longer.

The six helicopters that were cut last year:

  1. Prineville, Oregon (BK-1200) Swanson Group Aviation
  2. Helena, Montana (BK-1200) Central Helicopters
  3. Hamilton, Montana (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  4. Custer, South Dakota (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  5. Lancaster, California (CH-54A) Siller Helicopters
  6. Minden, Nevada (CH-54A) Helicopter Transport Services

Type 1 helicopters are frequently moved around depending on fire danger and incident activity and are often not at their home base.

What do aircraft studies recommend?

In March, 2017 when it was revealed that the six helicopters were being cut, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Jennifer Jones explained the agency’s rationale:

At this time, the agency has determined 28 to be the appropriate number of Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts given current types and numbers of other aircraft in the fleet. This is in line with the 2012 Airtanker Modernization Strategy.

She said “Up to 30 additional Type 1 helicopters” are on Call When Needed contracts, which includes the six that no longer have EU contracts.

The Airtanker Modernization Strategydoes not make an independent recommendation on the number of helicopters or air tankers that are needed. But it refers to a study conducted from 2007 to 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, which concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers. At the beginning of the 2017 western fire season there were 20 large and very large air tankers on EU contracts plus two water-scooping air tankers.

fire Aviation Strategy
Table from the “2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III”, page 21.

Our opinion

As this is being written, the politicians we elect to represent us in Washington are trying to put together a last minute (literally) federal budget that will keep the government from shutting down again tonight. They are proposing to increase the dollars spent on Defense by $165 billion. This would raise the total military budget for the next two years to $1.4 trillion. (A source in D.C. told us there is a chance the legislation will include a fix to the fire borrowing fiasco, where funds are taken from other functions to pay for wildfire suppression.)

Everyone agrees that the military needs to be adequately funded, but in 2016 the amount the U.S. spent on defense was almost equal to what the next 14 countries combined spent.

Here is an excerpt from the Washington Post, February 9, 2016:

On Tuesday, the International Institute for Strategic Studies released its Military Balance 2016 report, which seeks to examine closely the changing nature of military power. On a grand scale, the report showed – yet again – that U.S. military spending easily dwarfed the rest of the world. With a defense budget of around $597 billion, it was almost as much as the next 14 countries put together and far larger than the rest of the world.

military spending
Military spending, U.S and the rest of the world. Washington Post.

Much of the defense budget is spent in countries on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, the defense of our Homeland gets cut. Last year we saw 18 percent fewer Type 1 helicopters and the number of large air tankers was 57 percent of the recommendation in the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy.

Our suggestion is to prioritize the defense and protection of our citizens, homeland, forests, parks, grasslands, refuges, prairies, and wildlands FIRST, before considering spending trillions on the other side of the world.

NPS to hire branch chief for aviation

Above: National Park Service photo.

The National Park Service is expecting to hire a National Aviation Program Manager to fill the position vacated last month by the retirement of Jon Rollens. The GS-14 position provides leadership and direction for NPS aviation programs with specific emphasis on national aviation policy, standards and procedures.

There is only one “selective placement factor”. Applicants must have at least 90 days of wildland firefighting experience.

A pilot’s license is not required.

Skills the candidates should have include knowledge of:

  • Aircraft and associated support systems for resource management;
  • Wildland fire management, law enforcement, search and rescue, and related flying activities;
  • Evaluation and audit processes for aviation safety and risk management analysis.

Neither Mr. Rollens or his predecessor, Susie Bates, were pilots.

Before becoming NPS Branch Chief of Aviation in 2011, Mr. Rollens was the Regional Aviation Officer  for the U.S. Forest Service’s Northwest Region for nine years. From 1997 through 2002 he was a National Aerial Attack Systems Specialist for the Forest Service, and before that, a Helicopter Operations Specialist for the USFS Intermountain Region.


Our opinion:

The National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the other federal land management agencies would benefit from having qualified pilots in their top regional and national aviation positions. We have been told that the USFS National Aviation Officer is not a pilot and only one of their Regional Aviation Officers is. A person in these jobs who does not know what they don’t know can be dangerous.

For a position that leads the entire aviation program, if it comes down to two applicants, one with 90 days as a wildland firefighter and another with a pilot’s license, the pilot should get the nod. Most of the complexity in these positions is on the aviation side, not the firefighting aspect. There is a great deal of fire expertise in the organizations that the Aviation Officers can tap into. A wealth of specific and detailed aviation knowledge from a pilots perspective is more rare.

Federal hiring procedures are ridiculously complex, but these agencies should figure out a way to be able to hire at the GS-13 and 14 level, a pilot with extensive program management skills, even if they don’t have firefighting experience.