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.

Air tanker availability during this wildfire season

Air tanker availability during this wildfire season

T-131 in hangar door
Coulson’s Air Tanker 131 being pushed out of the hangar at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, March 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Today two newspapers published lengthy and detailed articles about the shortage of large air tankers. The Missoulian’s has an emphasis on their home-town company, Neptune Aviation, while the Arizona Republic’s has several references to last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew. You will recognize the names of one or two of the people quoted in the articles.

Below are the introductory paragraphs:

Missoulian:

Wildfire season officially begins April 28, and the U.S. Forest Service is heading into it with only three modern firefighting air tankers.

Missoula-based Neptune Aviation has one of those planes on contract. It argues to have two more, but competitors won a protest over Neptune’s no-competition award worth almost half a billion dollars over 10 years. By August, Neptune will have two more jets looking for work.

“We’re still cranking out air tankers,” Neptune CEO Ron Hooper said Friday. “But that’s the state of limbo we’re in. We’re waiting to see what the Forest Service will do.”

Meanwhile, one of Neptune’s six Korean War-vintage P2-V bombers saw seven hours of flying time on a wildfire in New Mexico last week. Of the five companies that received Forest Service “next-generation” contracts to provide seven new fire bombers last year, three have failed to deliver their planes.

Arizona Republic:

National wildfire officials are urgently trying to reinforce an undersized and aged fleet of retardant-dropping air tankers in the aftermath of June’s deadly Yarnell Hill Fire, but as they gird themselves for a potentially treacherous 2014 season, significant improvements may be more than a year away.

Tom Harbour, national director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, said drought conditions have dried up the West since last summer, when monsoon rains spawned a bumper crop of fire fuels.

“You bet we’re concerned and worried about what’s going to happen,” Harbour told The Arizona Republic. “This puts us in a precarious position as we head into this new season.”

Harbour noted that numerous unusual winter wildfires already have erupted and been doused in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest and in drought-ravaged Southern California. State officials said on April 2 that 179 wildland fires already had been reported this year in Arizona alone.

The significance: “We could be off to a very early start,” said Harbour.

The Arizona Republic and USA Today are both credited with this video report, uploaded Saturday to YouTube, about air tanker shortages:

Air tankers available in 2014

The following Type 1 & 2 air tankers, commonly called “large” air tankers, will be available on exclusive use contracts this year:

  • 8 — on the “legacy” contract, (1 Minden P2V, 6 Neptune P2Vs, and one Neptune BAe-146)
  • 2 — on the “next-gen” contract (1 Coulson C-130H and a 10 Tanker DC-10)
  • Possible: 5 other next-gen aircraft that received contracts on May 6, 2013 that may or may not become certified. The companies that still have not supplied the aircraft are Minden, Aero Air, and Aero-Flite.

Total: between 10 and 15. This does not include the two Neptune air tankers that were issued the sole source contract. That contract was protested, and the protest was upheld by the Government Accountability Office. The U.S. Forest Service can also call upon up to eight MAFFS military C-130 aircraft and can borrow some old CV-580s from Canada and Alaska if they are available. One additional DC-10 is on a call when needed contract and may be available if needed by the U.S. firefighting agencies.

Requests for air tankers that were unable to be filled

We have read several references recently about the number of requests for air tankers by wildfire incident commanders that were unable to be filled (UTF). We have been reporting on this issue for several years and updating it annually, but just to be sure the latest data is out there, below, again, is a graphic we put together from National Interagency Fire Center reports. The UTF numbers do not include the requests that were canceled, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere.

Air tanker unable to fill requests (UTF)

The actual numbers for the last three years:

UTF data 2011-2013

Almost half of requests for air tankers were not filled in 2012

Requests for large air tankersNew data that the National Interagency Fire Center released about the 2012 wildfire season reveals that almost half, or 48 percent, of the requests for large air tankers could not be filled. Of the 914 requests, 438 were rejected as “unable to fill” (UTF), meaning no air tankers were available to respond to the fire; 67 were cancelled for various reasons. The requests that were filled included 346 for civilian contracted air tankers and 63 for military Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) C-130s.

For additional perspective, consider that the number of requests for air tankers during the 2000 fire season was higher than the 13-year average between 2000 and 2012 — 548 requests vs. the average of 434, but in 2000 only 7 percent of them were UTF. In 2000 there were 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts compared to between 9 and 11 in 2012.

More acres burned in the United States in 2012 than average. At 9.3 million, it was the most since 2007. But the number of fires was surprisingly small, only 67,774 which is the lowest number since 2005.

The average number of fires in the lower 49 states each year is gradually decreasing, but the average size is increasing rapidly. This could be due to a number of factors, including climate, increased fuel loading (vegetation), reduced budgets, fewer firefighters, and not as many air tankers.

Average size of fires lower 49 states through 2012

One of the reasons the U.S. Forest Service has allowed the air tanker fleet to atrophy may be a misguided attempt to save money. Fast, aggressive, initial attack on new fires can reduce the number of megafires that may burn hundreds of homes while costing the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in suppression costs alone. The 2002 Federal Aerial Firefighting Report, usually known as the “Blue Ribbon Panel Report”, addressed this issue:

While cost-saving is an essential contracting criterion, it appears to have displaced other, less-quantifiable criteria that call for more judgment and experience, such as value, safety records, and past performance. Pilots have sarcastically referred to this cost-focus philosophy as “budget protection” rather than “fire protection.” In contrast, a Canadian philosophy states, “We can’t spend too much the first day [of a fire],” seems to justify spending money on early containment of a fire, and doing so in an operationally effective way that minimizes the number of escaped fires. In the long run, the Canadians believe that they spend far less for a quick-response capability designed to contain small fires than they do to fight fires after they grow large.

It has has been 1 year, 2 months, and 24 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded.