Unable to fill requests for air tankers increased in 2016

In 2016 there was an increase in the percentage of requests for large air tankers that went unfilled, increasing from 10 percent in 2015 which was the lowest since 2009, to 13.4 percent in 2016.

Counting the U.S. Forest Service HC-130H air tanker there was a maximum of 21 large and very large air tankers on exclusive use contracts in 2016. However, the two Erickson MD-87 aircraft were not available for most of the year due to problems with the retardant system. The company claims they have fixed the issue and they should be ready to go this summer. A few other call when needed (CWN) large and very large air tankers were activated for weeks at a time in 2016. Unless new contracts for CWN air tankers are issued that will be effective this year, the number of available air tankers in 2017 should be about the same. A new exclusive use contract is expected to be in effect in 2018.

Tanker 12 Trailhead Fire
Tanker 12 on the Trailhead Fire. A Cobra helicopter is in the background. Photo July 1, 2016 by Matthew Rhodes.

The number of acres burned in the lower 49 states (which excludes Alaska) was virtually the same in 2015 and 2016, with both being pretty close to average. There were also few extended fire sieges involving multiple large fires occurring at the same time that required a high number of air tankers. Having the fires spread out over time minimizes the number of air tanker requests that go unfilled.

wildfire acres per year
The number of acres burned in wildfires in the lower 49 states (excludes Alaska).

Here are some of the Unable to Fill numbers we computed from the data reported by the National Interagency Fire Center for 2016:

  • Type 1 and 2 large air tankers: 13.4%
  • Single Engine Air Tankers: 21.1%
  • Type 1 helicopters: 12.3%
  • Type 2 helicopters: 8.6%
  • Type 3 helicopters: 8.3%

There were only seven requests for MAFFS air tankers, and all were filled.

Summary of air tanker use, 2014

There were more requests for large air tankers (LATs) in 2014 than in any of the last 18 years. That is one of the facts in the 2014 version of the Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics put together by the National Interagency Fire Center.

We used data from the report to update statistics that we have been collecting over the years, including the chart below.

Graph, request for large air tankers

One of the more interesting trends is the number of requests for LATs that cannot be filled, referred to as Unable to Fill, or UTF. After reaching a high of 48 percent in 2012, it declined to 21 and then 12 percent in the next two years even as the number of requests for LATs was increasing.

One thing we don’t know is how many Incident Commanders needed air tankers but didn’t bother to request them because they knew that none were available.

Acres burned in wildfires

Two stats for 2014 indicate there would be a reduced urgent need for air tankers. The number of acres burned in the 48 contiguous states in 2014, 3.4 million, was significantly below the 10 year average of 5.7 million. And the number of structures burned, 1,953 was less than the 10 year average of 3,098.

At the beginning of 2014 there were 10 LATs on exclusive use contracts. By the end of the year there were 17 — eight were added and Minden’s P2V had a landing gear problem (see below) which took it out of service indefinitely. The additional air tankers on exclusive use contracts included:

  • 2 RJ-85s from Aero Flite;
  • 2 MD-87s from Erickson Aero Tanker;
  • 1 DC-10 from 10 Tanker Air Carrier; and
  • 3 BAe-146s from Neptune

In the list of eight additional air tankers listed above, the DC-10 and the three BAe-146s were brought into service as “additional equipment” on a 1-year temporary basis under an exclusive use contract awarded in 2013. Due to a change in Department of the Interior procurement policies, this will not be done again in 2015.

Minden was awarded a Next-Gen contract for a BAe-146 in 2013, but never delivered the aircraft. Recently the USFS terminated the contract for default.

MAFFS 3 hard landing
The MAFFS 3 air tanker experienced a hard landing at Hill Air Force Base on August 17. There were no injuries. Photo supplied by the Air Force, originally from Fox 13.

One air tanker was borrowed in 2014 from Canada for 10 days. Saskatchewan provided a Convair 580 and a TurboCommander 690 Bird Dog beginning on July 21. The air tanker group was in place until July 30, when it returned to Canada following a recall from Saskatchewan due to increased fire activity there.

Two Modular Airborne FireFighting System aircraft, C-130s from the military, were activated on July 20 and positioned at Boise. MAFFS 3 experienced a hard landing at Hill AFB when they had a problem with the nose landing gear. While no injuries occurred, the damage ended the service of MAFFS 3 for 2014, but MAFFS1 remained until August 24. MAFFS units provided retardant delivery to the Great Basin, Northwest and Northern Rocky Geographic Areas while employed from July 20 through August 24, delivering a total of 244,406 gallons while conducting 97 sorties. This is down from 2013 when 576 sorties were flown delivering 1,387,881 gallons of retardant.

Other notable aircraft mishaps or crashes in 2014:

  • Pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt was killed when his S-2T air tanker impacted the ground while he was attempting to make his second retardant drop on the Dog Rock Fire October 7 near Yosemite National Park in California.
  • An air attack fixed wing aircraft, an Aero Commander 500, overshot the runway while landing at Wilcox, AZ on July 2.
  • Tanker 73, one of CAL FIRE’s 23 S-2Ts, had a problem while landing at Hemet-Ryan Airport Friday, October 3 in southern California. The preliminary information indicated that it was a landing gear issue.
  • A Bell 206-L3 made a crash landing into a river May 29 while recertifying for water bucket operations near Missoula, Montana.
  • On June 15, Minden’s P2V, Tanker 48, was substantially damaged when the nose wheel landing gear collapsed during landing roll at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT), Fresno, California.
  • On October 4 an air attack aircraft ran off the runway at Nevada County Airport near Grass Valley, California.
  • An air attack plane under contract to the Department of the Interior crashed May 17 at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The Rockwell Aero Commander 500S impacted the ground shortly after takeoff. The aircraft was on an orientation flight for a new pilot on the air attack contract. Two company employees, but no agency personnel, were on board. There was an unconfirmed report that one person died several days later.