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

Requests for large air tankers

New 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.

6 thoughts on “Almost half of requests for air tankers were not filled in 2012”

  1. Interesting data to be sure.. we were discussing # of UTF’s the other day and came up with this… The input data is skewed.. Due to the fact that there are only a handful of large air tanker available nationwide and vlats are on CWN.. ATGS’s just don’t order what they really need. The system the last few years has developed new Aerial Supervisors who have not had the pleasure of getting 10 large air tankers on scene within the first hour. So now tactics are different.

    1. Good point, Tony. I am surprised that the number of UTFs is as high as it is since like you say, some ATGSs and Incident Commanders don’t bother ordering an air tanker if they think none are available. However, my advice is … if you need and can justify the use of aircraft, place the order. There may be some out there that that you are not aware of. And, if none show up, at least you helped contribute to some meaningful statistics documenting the need for an adequate number of firefighting resources.

      1. I agree the number would be a lot higher if everyone ordered the tankers they needed, even if they didn’t think they would get them. As an IC or DIVS, or whatever, I order what I need every time, even if I KNOW I have a snowballs chance in hell of getting the resources……..shows we need more resources nationally and could potentially save your butt in court when the lawyers ask why you didn’t order more resources if they were needed instead of letting Joe Public’s house from burning down!

  2. On the other note I order aircraft on any incident I see the need and at that time I order what I believe to be the appropriate mix/response, I do this hoping Fire Managers locally/nationally understand that if you give me the right type and amount of tools especially on I.A. or the 1st day there may be a higher probability of success.

  3. From new solicitation, IA vs. Large Fire



    (a) It is the intent of this solicitation and any resultant contract to secure a Firm-Fixed Price
    Multi-Year (5 year base) with (5) one year options contract not to exceed ten (10) years for the turbine powered Fixed-Wing Airtanker(s) services fully operated by FAA qualified, FAA current, proficient and approved personnel and equipped to meet specifications of this Contract. Primary use of airtankers under this contract will be for initial attack (IA) of wildfires, as Contrasted with large fire support (LFS). These airtankers are expected to carry 3000 to 5000 gallons of retardant to fires in the beginning stage of fire initiation for anticipated missions of one hour or less. These immediate response actions occur in the first burning periods and are intended to support personnel either on scene or enroute to the incident in containing the fire when it is least costly to do so. During MAP the airtanker shall be made available for the exclusive use of the government.

  4. Interesting numbers and charts, but there are some lingering questions: how many of the UTFs were on IA or Extended IA versus large fires: what was the GACC distribution of the UTFs; were there higher resource protection priorities (WUI versus grass and sagebrush); what was the GACC and National fire situation (numbers of fires, number of IMTs committed, numbers of acres burning); what was the final fire size/cost on the fires that were UTFed? “Figures can lie, and liars can figure”.

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