The United States has nearly run out of large air tankers

The Forest Service hoped to have 16 working on CWN contracts, but could only find 5

Tanker 15 drops on fire
Tanker 15, on contract with CAL FIRE, drops on the Dixie Fire near the Placer 1 and 2 crews of the California Conservation Corps. Photo by Jason Barrett, of the CCC.

More than 21,000 personnel are battling 66 large wildfires in the early portion of an extremely busy fire season and the US Forest Service (FS) has activated all of the privately owned large air tankers (LATs) that they possibly can. There are no more available in the country.

The FS is the federal agency responsible for contracting for the large fire-slowing aircraft that can carry 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of retardant, or in the case of the DC-10’s, up to 9,400. The FS does not operate any government-owned air tankers; they are all privately owned, working under contracts administered by the FS.

As this is written on July 28, there are 18 LATs active on Exclusive Use (EU) contracts and 5 on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts, for a total of 23. In addition, the FS has borrowed the only LAT that Australia has, a 737, which flew across the Pacific a few days ago.

Five military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) have been called into action that can carry up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant. Theoretically there should be eight available at all times during the fire season, but we were unable to find out from the FS if it would be possible to activate the additional three.

Some of us who follow the industry and aerial firefighting may or may not be surprised that the FS could only muster 23 LATs on EU or CWN contracts, because for years the agency has told the public and Congressional Committees that they have “up to 35 (or 34)” air tankers.

On May 17, 2021 Fire Aviation was told by a spokesperson for the FS that this year they would have 34 LATs if needed — 18 on Exclusive Use Contracts guaranteed to work, 8 “surge” LATs guaranteed to work for a shorter period of time, and another 8 on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts. Of those 16 surge and CWN aircraft, only 5 could be produced.

In a Senate Committee hearing on June 9, 2020 John Phipps, US Forest Service Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry said, “We have up to 35 large air tankers (LATs)… and we are well under way for our planning and preparedness for the upcoming western fire season.”

On December 5, 2019 the FS said they had signed Call When Needed (CWN) agreements for air tanker services with six companies for a total of 35 aircraft. The number “35” was misleading because most if not all of the 13 large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts at the time also had CWN contracts; some were being double-counted. That brought the CWN number down to around 22.

It turns out that leaning on that “up to” 34 or 35 number year after year has been a very weak crutch. “Up to 35” can mean any number between zero and 35. It should not be that difficult to count these huge aircraft, especially considering how much they cost to operate.

Some of the Western states have either realized that they can’t count on the federal government to supply them with air tankers when the need arises, or they have recently adopted a more aggressive approach to attacking new fires. Three states this year have leased a total of five LATs that are inspected and carded by the FS, capable of working on EU or CWN contracts for the FS if they had been offered the opportunity. California has augmented their fleet of 23 S-2T’s with two BAe-146’s and one MD-87, Colorado has hired one BAe-146, and Oregon is leasing an MD-87. In addition, the state of Washington has picked up on contract one LAT that had been working on an Alaska contract, a Q-400 operated by Conair. As far as I know the Canadian-converted Q-400 has not been blessed by the Interagency Air Tanker Board in the US, but the state organizations are not bound by that organization. There are also a handful of 1,600-gallon scoopers (CL-415 type) working for states, and too many 700-gallon single engine air tankers to count.

“Three [aircraft that have Forest Service CWN contracts] are operating in Canada,” said Stanton Florea, a Fire Communications Specialist for the FS. “Seven are not operational. They were either not built as airtankers, the companies cannot staff them, or the companies are not making them available to be on contract.”

There is a possibility, Mr. Florea said, that Canada could loan the US some air tankers or scoopers if they were available, through an agreement between the US National Interagency Fire Center and the Canadian Forest Fire Centre. However, the provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario have their hands full with their own fires — they are flying in firefighters from Australia to provide assistance.

CWN aircraft may or may not be immediately available during the fire season, with mechanics and crew members available to suddenly drop what they were doing and start flying fires. In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts. But CWN costs are charged to the virtually unlimited fire suppression accounts, so the Forest Service does not care about using taxpayer’s dollars in that manner. And they are not held accountable.

While these numbers may have changed since 2018, it is unlikely that the differential between EU and CWN has changed much.

Over the last 10 years the average number of LATs on EU Forest Service contracts was 14.0 for the United States. The average number on EU contracts from 2000 through 2009 was 28.3. This year there are 18, which is 5 more than last year.

The FS goes as far as they can with the limited, insufficient funds appropriated by Congress and approved by the President. If the planes don’t exist when needed, new and emerging wildfires can more easily escape initial attack and grow into huge blazes, or megafires that can consume more than a million dollars of taxpayer funds each day. In the 14 days the Dixie Fire has been burning homes and hundreds of thousands of acres in Northern California, it has also been eating an average of $4.5 million in suppression funds every day. If some of that was instead spent on prescribed burning and additional EU air tankers, it might save money in the long run.

One of the lessons learned this year and others like it, is, Congress must appropriate adequate funds for the five land management agencies to pay firefighters a living wage, conduct more prescribed fires, and have at least 40 large air tankers and 50 large Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use 10-year contracts instead of 1-year contracts.

The peak of the Western US wildfire season is usually in August, but in 2020 the day with the highest number of fire personnel mobilized was September 19 when the record was set with 32,727 assigned to wildfires.

The outlook for August, September, and October predicts weather that will be hotter and drier than average for the Western US, which, if accurate, will lead to an above average fire season in the Western US. The live fuel moistures and Energy Release Components in many areas are already near or above the all time extremes.

Three-month outlook
Three-month outlook for August, September, and October, 2021.

How many air tankers do we need?

Two studies, completed 14 and 25 years ago, said there is a need for 35 or 41 large air tankers.

Air Tanker 910 DC-10
Air Tanker 910, a DC-10.

Today we are looking back at an article we published in 2017, titled, “Does anyone know how many large air tankers we need?”


In the interview with Shawna Legarza published on Wildfire Today this morning, the National Fire Director for the U.S. Forest Service said in response to a question about how many large air tankers are required:

I would say we need anywhere from 18 to 28, you know that’s what it says in the [2012 Large Airtanker] Modernization Strategy. I think that’s a good range.

We re-read that Strategy, and could not find any independent conclusion reached by the authors about the number of air tankers. But, on page 3 there was this:

Continued work is ongoing to determine the optimum number of aircraft to meet the wildfire response need, but studies have shown that it is likely that between 18 and 28³ aircraft are needed.

The referred to footnote #3 is this:

³The requirements for large airtankers have been derived from the “National Interagency Aviation Council Phase III Report, December 7, 2007”, and the “Interagency National Study of Large Airtankers to Support Initial Attack and Large Fire Suppression, Phase 2, November 1996”.

The first of the two studies recommended increasing the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 19 in 2008 to 32 in 2018. Plus, there would be three water scoopers by 2018, bringing the total up to 35. The table below is from the study.

fire Aviation Strategy
Screen grab from the 2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III, page 21.

The second document, the 21-year old study from 1996, recommended 20 P3-A aircraft, 10 C-130B aircraft, and 11 C-130E aircraft, for a total of 41 large air tankers.

The “18 to 28” air tankers mentioned in passing in the “2012 Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy” is not reflected in the referrals indicated in the footnote.

Much has changed in the world of aerial firefighting in the 10 to 21 years since those two studies were written. (They are two of the 16 air tanker studies and reports listed on the Wildfire Today Documents page.)

But what has not changed is that the numbers in these studies, written by smart, well-meaning people, are basically back of envelope stuff. There has not been in the United States a thorough, well designed analysis of the effectiveness of aerial attack, exactly how much retardant is needed in a certain time frame, where aircraft need to be based, and how many and what type of aircraft are required.

Under pressure from Congress and the GAO to justify the aerial firefighting program, in 2012 the U.S. Forest Service began a program to develop metrics and collect data to document and quantify the effectiveness of aircraft in assisting firefighters on the ground. This became the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) program. It will be several more years before they expect to release findings related to the effectiveness and probability of success of aerial resources.

We asked “Bean” Barrett, a frequent contributor on Fire Aviation, for his view on how many air tankers are needed. He started by saying the general theme of the letter written in 2012 by Ken Pimlott, the Director of CAL FIRE, to the Chief of the Forest Service, is still applicable today. Director Pimlott said in part that the then-recent USFS Large Air Tanker Modernization Strategy was insufficient to meet the needs of the combined federal, state and local wildland firefighting missions.

Bean’s further input is below.

****

“18-28 Large Air Tankers as the Federal inventory objective? Could we be a little more precise? What if the federal requirement was defined by referring to something like required retardant gallons delivered/ hour/ mile from base/ dollar. At least then, some basic economic analysis could be used to justify inventory when it comes around to contracts and budget time. What about required number of LAT sorties/ year / GACC?

“Do the NICC UTF numbers actually identify requirements shortfalls? How many IMT’s don’t bother to request air support when they don’t think any air is available? UTF data would be very useful to demonstrate inventory shortfall if UTF’s represented all the unfilled need. In 2015 UTF’s represented a 10% shortfall in LAT sortie generation requirements. In 2016 UTF’s represented a 15% shortfall. Based on what I would say are very conservative UTF numbers, there has been at least a 10-15% shortfall in available LAT inventory over the last two years.

“Really hard to comment on inventory objectives when it isn’t clear what the Large Air Tanker mission is. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, if you don’t know what you want to do with them, any number will be enough.

“Is the mission IA or extended attack? Is it ground support or independent tasking? What effects are trying to be achieved and how well are they achieved? Should an attack within 24 hours really be considered IA for an aircraft? CALFIRE wants aircraft on scene in 20 minutes. The Australians want <30 minutes.

“Just for openers, this is a very good ops analysis piece using real data from real fires: https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_journals/2016/rmrs_2016_stonesifer_c001.pdf

Our results confirm earlier research results related to LAT use and challenge a long-held assumption that LATs are applied primarily to assist in the building of line to contain fires during IA.

Perhaps most importantly, we highlight system-wide deficiencies in data collection related to objectives, conditions of use and outcomes for LAT use.

Our current inability to capture drop objectives and link specific actions to subsequent outcomes precludes our ability to draw any conclusion about the effectiveness of the federal LAT programme.

“A finding in the study … Mean time of day for drops was 15:39 and only about half of the drops were IA. This makes it really difficult to say that LAT’s are there to support the ground crews.

“Why not tie LAT requirements directly to the number and type of IMT’s mobilized? Perhaps some ops analysis would find a ratio of number and type of tankers to type of IMT’s mobilized? Or perhaps a ratio of days IMT’s mobilized to LAT sorties required for support? Start thinking like an integrated air-ground team and define air requirements in terms of IMT’s or crews mobilized and supported. When the definition of Head Quarters units [ IMT’s] composition or types of ground crews includes the number and type of aircraft included in support, the inventory objective for tankers will fix itself. I expect everyone has a much better handle on the amount and type of ground support required today compared to the very vague understanding of tanker requirements. Tie air requirements to the better understood ground requirements.

“Once the real data gets collected and analyzed, it may be found that the best air IA assets for type 3 IMT’s aren’t fixed wing tankers. (Provided IA is redefined to something like arrival within 20-30 minutes of dispatch.)”

NTSB says wing of crashed air attack plane was found distant from the rest of the aircraft

Map Cedar Basin Fire
Map showing the location of the Cedar Basin Fire at 2:54 p.m. MDT July 10, 2021.

In a brief preliminary report released yesterday the National Transportation Safety Board said that one of the wings of the air attack aircraft that crashed northeast of Wikieup, Arizona on July 10, 2021 was found 0.79 miles from the main wreckage.

The NTSB said the Beechcraft King Air C90 had been on station for 45 minutes orbiting the fire at about 2,500′ AGL. The last radar data point showed the airplane’s airspeed about 151 knots, its altitude about 2,300′ AGL, and that it was in a descent, about 805 ft east southeast of the accident site. The main wreckage, but not the separated wing, was consumed in a post-crash fire.

An eyewitness told a reporter that she saw the aircraft coming down at a “steep angle” and then “slam into the ground.” An hour later she and her husband drove to an area near the crash. They said Bureau of Land Management employees told them they they witnessed a wing fall off the plane in the air before it crashed.

At the time of the crash Pilot Matthew Miller, 48, and Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) Jeff Piechura, 62, were on board conducting visual reconnaissance and aviation command and control over the fire. Both of them were killed.

The King Air was one of the models mentioned in a recent FAA Airworthiness Directive (AD). Beginning January 11, 2021, AD #85 FR 78699 required inspection of certain Beechcraft King Air and Queen Air models due to a danger of wing separation.

Click HERE to see all articles on Fire Aviation about the incident.

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

Man arrested for shooting at Ventura County Helicopter

Ventura County FireHawk
File photo of Ventura County FireHawk Copter 4 testing new tanks at 69Bravo, June 9, 2021 near Topanga, California . Photo from 69Bravo cameras.

On Thursday morning, July 22, 2021, Joshua Chimarusti was arrested after he fired several rounds from a handgun at a Ventura County Firehawk helicopter in Southern California.

On July 21, 2021 at approximately 9:15 PM, the crew of Ventura County Firehawk Copter 4 was conducting nighttime training operations in Lake Casitas when they became aware of gunfire directed at them.  The pilot of Copter 4 took evasive action and identified a suspect vehicle leaving the area at a high rate of speed.  Copter 4 followed the suspect vehicle into Oak View where it came to a stop in the 200 block of Olive Street.  The suspect, who was later identified as Joshua Chimarusti, exited the vehicle, and fired additional shots from a handgun at Copter 4.  Mr. Chimarusti ran away to avoid being arrested.

Joshua James Chimarusti
Joshua James Chimarusti. Photo by Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.

An extensive search of the area was conducted by by patrol Deputies, various investigative units, K9, UAV, a small SWAT contingent, and Ventura County Copter 3.  Mr. Chimarusti was ultimately located and taken into custody in the early morning hours of July 22, 2021.  The handgun he used during both shootings was also located and seized as evidence.  Ventura County Copter 4 did not sustain any damage from the incident.

Mr. Chimarusti was arrested and booked for attempted murder, assault with a firearm upon a peace officer or fire fighter, shooting at an occupied aircraft, discharge of a firearm with gross negligence, prohibited person in possession of a firearm, and carrying a loaded unregistered firearm.  He had a court appearance scheduled for arraignment in Ventura County Superior Court on July 26.

Ventura County purchased three military HH-60L Blackhawk helicopters and is converting them into FIREHAWKS that will be used for fighting wildland fires, personnel transport, search and rescue, law enforcement, and medical evacuation.

The County has a joint Fire Department and Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit. In addition to the FIREHAWKS, they have one Bell 206 Jet Ranger, one Bell 212 HP, one Bell 205B, and two UH-1A Hueys.

Major improvements announced for Grand Junction Air Center

$6.1 million will be used to replace existing structures and repair the tanker base concrete apron

Grand Junction Air Center complex
A retardant loading pit at the Grand Junction Air Center complex, May 10, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In Grand Junction, Colorado on July 23 Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a $6.1 million investment to replace facilities at the Air Center complex at the airport, which is the dispatch and air tanker base at the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit.

The improvements at the multi-purpose wildland fire management and operations center will eliminate safety hazards by replacing multiple structurally deficient buildings with a single cost-effective building.

“We owe the brave women and men on the frontlines the right tools and training they need to protect our communities and our lands from the increasing threat of fire,” said Secretary Haaland while touring the Grand Junction Air Center.

Grand Junction Air Center complex
Grand Junction Air Center complex. May 10, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The infrastructure improvements to the Air Center complex announced Friday are intended to keep workers safe and increase efficiency while reducing operation costs. Additional structural repairs to the Tanker Base concrete apron pavement will correct multiple deficiencies and bring the apron into compliance with Federal Aviation Administration requirements.

The project is supported by the Great American Outdoors Act’s (GAOA) National Park and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund program. Through GAOA, the Department of the Interior will invest more than $1.6 billion in Fiscal Year 2022  to address critical deferred maintenance projects and improve transportation and recreation infrastructure in national parks, national wildlife refuges, and visitors centers, as well as dams, water and utility infrastructure, schools, and other historic structures.

Grand Junction Air Center complex
View from inside the Grand Junction Air Center. May 10, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

United States borrows large air tanker from Australia

A 737 Fireliner is flying across the Pacific

Bomber 210, a 747 air tanker
Bomber 210, a 737 air tanker. NSW RFS photo.

It wasn’t that many years ago that Australia rarely if ever used large air tankers to assist “fireys” on the ground who were suppressing bushfires. But today their one and only large air tanker is flying across the Pacific to assist firefighters in the United States who are spread thin battling 61 large wildfires across several western states.

Bomber 210 (N138CG) has refueled in Hawaii and is on it’s last leg before landing in the United States. It is expected to be deployed for 45 days.

N138CG en route to US
New South Wales Rural Fire Service 737 air tanker en route to the United States makes a stop in Hawaii July 21, 2021. Coulson Aviation image.

When it arrives, Coulson will prepare the aircraft for operations within the US, which may take a few days.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service purchased the 737 air tanker from Coulson Aviation in May of 2019 after using one on a contract basis during the 2018-2019 summer bushfire season.

In addition to the Boeing 737 Fireliner, NSW purchased two Cessna Citation V Lead/Intelligence Aircraft in 2019. All of the aircraft were accompanied by a ten-year operational contract for Coulson to provide all flight and maintenance personnel.

 

Person fires gun near dozens of firefighters at airport in Idaho

A 911 report said the suspect was attempting to steal a helicopter

Map, Shoshone County Airport
Map, Shoshone County Airport. Wildfire Today / Google Earth.

On Saturday July 17, wildland firefighters at the Shoshone County Airport in Smelterville, Idaho 30 miles southeast of Coeur d’Alene, encountered a dangerous situation that is not covered in the numerous training courses they take.

From the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office:


At approximately 5:52pm, Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) dispatch received a 911 call reporting an armed subject approaching fire personnel in their helicopter at the Shoshone County Airport in Smelterville Idaho. A second 911 caller reported the subject was attempting to steal a helicopter.

At the airport during this incident, there were between 30 to 70 fire fighter personnel present on scene due to the local active fires.

At approximately 5:57pm, a SCSO Deputy arrived on scene and quickly located the armed suspect (Oregon resident). The suspect then discharged a handgun several times into the ground and air as fire fighter personnel were fleeing the immediate area. The SCSO Deputy ordered the suspect to drop the weapon, he complied soon after and was taken into custody with the assistance of a 2nd SCSO Deputy and an Idaho State Police Trooper without further incident. Several other SCSO units and other law enforcement agencies arrived shortly after.

For clarification, NO law enforcement officers discharged a firearm and no one was injured during this incident.

The investigation is ongoing and no further information will be released at this time.

End of Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office report.


Map, Shoshone County Airport
Vicinity map, Shoshone County Airport. Google Earth.

Aviation fuel shortage could affect aerial firefighting

Coulson Aviation’s fuel trucks for their CH-47 helicopters. Coulson photo.

The lingering effects of the pandemic have left a symptom that may affect aerial firefighting. The logistics system for Jet A aviation fuel atrophied when air travel dropped sharply. Now that business and leisure travel have rebounded, competition is heating up for what is now a limited amount of fuel that is being distributed. Larger airports served by aviation fuel pipelines are in better shape than smaller facilities that depend on a person driving truck to their location.

Fire Aviation talked to over a dozen people in the aerial firefighting community and confirmed that one air tanker base that serves large air tankers came very close to running out of Jet A, but a truck arrived just in time. We were not able to confirm one report that another large base did run out.

One place where a fuel shortage could show up is at base heliports on wildland fires. The contractors who supply helicopters have their own fuel trucks, but if the product becomes scarce they might have to travel a farther distance to refill the tanks on the trucks. And the larger the helicopter, the more fuel they need. An example is the tanker trucks Coulson Aviation drives to fires which likely hold thousands of gallons to keep their CH-47 helicopters running . (See the photo at the top of this article.)

As of Thursday all of the bases for large air tankers in Washington and Oregon had a supply of fuel, but several smaller airports that serve Single Engine Air Tankers were having problems.

The airport at Lake County, Oregon 28 miles from the 236,000-acre Bootleg Fire exhausted their supply of Jet A earlier this week, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office reported.

“The Lake County Airport ran out of Jet A fuel July 11, 2021,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a press release Wednesday July 14. “Several surrounding airports also ran out of Jet A fuel and turned to the Lake County Airport for support. The Airport Manager had put in an order July 5, but because of a national shortage, the Lake County Airport was unable to get fuel until today. The Lake County Commissioners contacted State Representative E. Werner Reschke and the Department of Energy in an effort to find fuel for the Airport. The team made countless phone calls and sent emails to regional suppliers, airports and many other sources trying to fill the immediate order.”

The Lake County airport received 3,500 gallons on Wednesday and expected another 8,500 gallons Friday.

The Los Angeles Times interviewed Chris Kunkle, vice president of operations for the Central Coast Jet Center in Santa Maria, Calif., in Santa Barbara County, the home of an air tanker base that can serve air tankers of any size, including DC-10s.

“In the blink of an eye, we can have a fire here within our response area that can bring in one to three DC-10s and a bunch of variable-sized air tankers,” he said. “We can go from a couple thousand gallons a day to 50,000 to 60,000 gallons.”

He said he likes to keep 60,000 gallons at the airport, but is having trouble with limited deliveries. He fears running out if a large fire breaks out in the area.

Fire Aviation asked a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center several questions about the fuel shortage issue, including if any air tanker or helicopter bases in the Western U.S. have recently run out of aviation fuel.

“The agencies that manage airtanker bases are aware of potential issues regarding the availability of jet fuel at smaller, rural airports in the West,” the National Interagency Fire Center said in a statement issued July 16. “However, there have been no significant impacts to wildland fire aviation operations. We continue to monitor the situation and consult with our aviation partners and industry representatives. As a contingency, at some locations we have identified alternate airports and airtanker bases that could be utilized should fuel supplies become low or run out.”