Should very large air tankers be used on 7-acre fires?

Landing gear of Air Tanker 910
Landing gear of Air Tanker 910, a DC-10, at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A video we embedded in an article on June 7 shows one of the DC-10 very large air tankers making a precision drop using what appeared to be a small fraction of it’s 11,600 gallon capacity, on what was described as a 7-acre fire below Pinal Peak near Globe, Arizona. It generated a fair amount of discussion in the comments, mostly positive, except for one from “Don” who called it “overkill”. “DiggerT” provided a thoughtful response to Don, and I also added my two cents in a comment.

We don’t know why the DC-10 was selected to drop on the fire near Pinal Peak. Maybe it had been dropping on another fire in the area, or perhaps it was the only air tanker available. At any rate, in the video the radio traffic from the lead or air attack plane indicated that he was extremely pleased with the results of the drop.

I am pasting below what I wrote in the comment because it includes a few details about the pricing structure for the seven next generation air tankers that we have not previously covered:


“Don, are you aware that the hourly flight rate for the DC-10 on this new exclusive use contract is by far lower than the other six aircraft that were selected for contracts? The nearest competitor is $2,054 per hour more expensive than the DC-10, and the DC-10 is a little more than half the hourly rate for Minden’s BAe-146.

But keep in mind the contract is complex, and the DC-10’s pricing structure, in order to compare apples to apples, is based on delivering 3,000 gallons, approximately the same as the other six aircraft — according to information I received from someone who is very familiar with the contracting process for next generation air tankers. There are additional specifics to cover the DC-10 dropping more than 3,000 gallons.

But as you can see in the bid details, the Total Cost Estimate for the first year, which apparently takes this into account, has the DC-10’s total cost approximately in the same ball park as the others, which are, in millions, $36.4, $36.4, $38.9, $39.5, and $41.3. The DC-10’s was $43.2. But keep in mind that the DC-10 delivers about three to four times more retardant than the maximum capacity of the other next gen air tankers , and six times more than Tanker 40, a BAe-146, if T40 is reloading at Silver City Airtanker Base on a 90 degree day.

And, I have to agree with DiggerT. If there is any potential for a wildland fire to become large it should be attacked with overwhelming force, rather than attempting to fire fire on the cheap. This can save money, property, and lives.

A year ago I wrote my “Prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires“:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.”

25 thoughts on “Should very large air tankers be used on 7-acre fires?”

  1. Thanks for the cost details, Bill!!

    At the end of the day, the questions will still be:

    Was it the only tanker available in the area?
    A new epiphany of overwhelming force?
    A new day of realization dawning for all, after 6-7 years of putting up an aircraft after 7 yrs of OJT?
    Is it finally paying off after the NASA/ USFS study?
    How many of the other current 9 available LAT’s were even near the area?
    Maybe one drop is Cheaper than what was thought before?

    This will all create more discussion, especially when the other “Next Gen” aircraft are not exactly tanked and ready to go next week…that IS for sure!

    Cutting Neptune out of the action this early in the game, with what they had available compared to the others, currently, might create some future consequences, that require more of the DC10 showing up on someone’s acreage.

    That will certainly create some discussion, that should have been discussed 5-7 yrs ago when the doubters were still doubtin!!

    Maybe the insurance companies are watching this, too.

  2. Hi, Bill. This was the last of 9 drops on 1 flight on this fire.That’s why there was so little retardant. We were basically getting rid of the residue. The fire was much bigger when we arrived with no easy access for ground crews. The towers at the top of the hill were high priority. 1 flight and it was a done deal. Definitely cost effective!

  3. Hi,
    What would have been the cost if the entire mountain burnt?
    As I said before, what really matters is the potential acreage (saved) and consequently the cost of operations(reduced)… That’s why Initial Attack is the way to go. Contain it while it’s small and buy time for ground crews so they put it out.
    Maybe no other tanker was available…Maybe..maybe..

    50 tankers in 2000 down to 15 in 12 years to cover the same territory. Don’t forget the importance of tactical spread; more Tankers and Bases for rapid response on smaller fires.
    That’s what we should talk about…

  4. Hey Jerome

    Don’t blur any ideas here with facts… it gets the non flying natives restless……..Ha ahahaha

    We do understand the ground firefighter is the one actually doing the hard work. I know as well as a number here about plinkin a Pulaski

    The arguments could go on……maybe the folks at Pinal Peak were lucky that even 1 of the 9 out the olldddd 44 airtankers even showed up!!

  5. Using a VLAT on a 7 acre is ridiculous on so many levels that it defies logic that there is even a discussion!! If 7 acres is OK, why not 5 or 3, or a 1/2 acre??? Has common sense completely left the room? To spend $28,9000 daily and then ADD $$4500.00 x 2 to that makes the cost of 500 gallons a staggering $74.00 a GALLON!!! What is the cost of a SEAT? Or a full week of using a 205. Of a crane for that matter… At one point the cost of a large tanker was so expensive that they were only used in the most extreme conditions. A VLAT of a 7 acre fire should cost someone a job. Period

    1. Thanks for your input, Janet. However, there are errors in your analysis. I suggest you re-read this article and the one with the video, and especially the comments following both by people who are very knowledgeable about wildland firefighting from the ground and the air. (Period.)

      1. Bill,

        I read the article and watched the video. I also went to fire school in Tuscon and got schooled on what is a bad drop. Putting retardant into the black is a waste of resource. Dropping a vertical column of retardant is a waste of resource. The drop was noteworthy in its ability to hit a 7 acre spot. But it was inaccurate in that to put all the product, in far to heavy of a coverage into the interior of the fire. BTW it looks like 1500 gallons to me. I agree that fires should be kept small, but in my area we put out a 7 acre hillside fire with a hand crew. As I said, why not put out 1/2 acre fires with a VLAT? 7 acres, this demonstration was a waste of money.

  6. Best to keep it at 7 acres than letting it become the next 50,000+acre multimillion dollar fire.

  7. I know this is an older drop so the DC-10 is carrying its full load. It have heard however that 10 Tanker had to propose a maximum 5000 gallon capacity to get into the Next Gen contact the second time around. Can anyone confirm that? And if that’s the case will they be able to operate as effective with the lower capacity?

    1. I believe no credit was given for more than 5000 gallons in the RFP. It talks about a 3000-5000 gallon capability for next gen aircraft.

  8. If your shopping for retardant try Target or Home Depot. Cal Fire spends lots of aviation money for I.A. Pay a little now or a lot later. I think we all know those fires that where screwed up on I.A. and cost people their homes and lives. Remember, if you spend more money on I.A. than the boss thought you should have and the fire is contain no one will remember after a few days. However if you under order and the fire gets away and destroys people, property and resources you WILL be remembered as the I.C. that lost that fire.

    1. Well said, Johnny. Fighting fire on the cheap can ultimately be more expensive in acres, money, property, and lives. In 2012 six people were killed by wildfires in the state of Colorado.

  9. I agree with the way the DC-10 was used on this fire, especially when you consider the importance of the infrastructure above the fire. However, when discussing cost, my understanding is that fuel is a separate line and not included in the bids? When we send our engine or water tender, we are paid a wet rate. If the rate doesn’t include fuel, it would make a significant difference in cost. To me, if fuel is separate, then maybe we should be trying to get the contractors to use more efficient planes. I’m curious what actual cost per gallon (or 1000 gallon) delivered by the different platforms would be.

    Still, at this point in the process, we need to get every plane available flying. Maybe when all this Next Gen stuff shakes out, we can worry about delivery vehicle suitability.

  10. Janet,
    I believe you fight the wrong battle. As I said above and others agree to it; I.A is the way to go. It would have been great to see a couple Seats or Copters or a P2 work this fire but… Maybe no one was available! Maybe the only solution at that moment was the DC10.. and maybe that 7 acres seems to cost a lot but what if this turned out to become 70 000 acres because no one dropped on it when it was 7 acres…(good potential for big fire. Terrain, fuel..) And then you call the DC10, 3 Lat’s, 20 National Guard Helicopters, 2 Aircranes, flying all day for a week…etc… Cost?

    I’m certainly not saying DC10’s should replace Seats and Lats for IA !
    The question to ask why we don’t have 50 Lats flying around the US contracted by USFS to fight fires… ? That’s the real question.
    After 2002, 2004 and the BRP something should have been decided and done.
    USFS didn’t IA that problem (aging fleet of Tankers) and now it’s going to cost a lot…

    1. It’s amazing, Jerome, how few people can understand the concepts you outlined, aggressive initial attack, and using what ever resources are available, even if they are not what you would LIKE to have available.

      The latter reminds me of a quote from former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whom I almost never agree with, including the decisions that put him into the following situation. It occurred during a Q. and A. with military personnel in Iraq, December 8, 2006. Around that time many soldiers in unarmored HUMVEEs and other vehicles were being killed by improvised explosive devices. One of the soldiers asked:

      Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?

      Rumsfeld replied:

      As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.

      Like Rumsfeld’s situation which caused by the poor decision of not providing armor for vehicles, the wildland fire community after 11+ years of no decisions about rebuilding the large air tanker fleet, finds itself fighting fire with the resources we have, not the resources we might want or wish to have at a later time.

  11. OK. My 2 cents. If we knew the date of this drop we could pretty easily figure the circumstances for this “overkill”. Remember, Arizona had just experienced the “Wallow year” and climatically-speaking, I don’t think the extended drought had eased in any way to cause folks to think AZ wasn’t going to really burn again.

    Wasn’t the Big Boy working CWN that season? There is a minimum number of days on a CWN. Right? If the Feds for instance bring it onboard that doesn’t restrict it to just one NF or agency, does it? Use up that minimum if you can. So with its range and speed might it not have been working another distant fire and been diverted if only for 1 “small” drop? And where were all the other flyboys in their shorter range, slower steeds? Likely out of range working other fires? Half an acre can transform into a major conflagration in minutes anymore.

    When I was a ground pounder 45 years ago I would never have imagined the intensity and size of today’s wildfires. The big “project fires” were always way up north. Down south it was the Santa Anas and SoCal brushland biggies. Other than those a 20,000 acre fire was a BIG fire. Now they are a dime-a-dozen event throughtout the West. Hell, I’ll chip in a few bucks if everyone else will for a slap-it-in-the face IA and maybe a view from the cockpit!

    Even if it might appear offensive in the eyes of a taxpayer an overkill IA is far better than one that falls just short because somebody proposed to save a dollar.

  12. Everyone who think DC-10 for 7 acres fire is waste of money, please check Big Meadows Fire inciweb site. It was less than 3 acres in the first 2 days and now 600 acres. I think the terrain is impossible to use VLAT, but it’s a good demonstration for how a small fire can be a disaster if take too long to put out the fire.

    1. A disaster?

      Aren’t we forgetting something here? Forested ecosystems have always had fire as part of the system.

      And these systems are in conditions that are outside what we’d call “normal” conditions. We’ve contributed to this in several ways. Not the least of which is by arbitrarily extinguishing EVERY new fire for the last 135 years.

      Now, in the case of Big Meadows, you’ve got an ecosystem that’s been significantly affected by beetles. And either way, that system experienced fires historically. It’s naive to expect we’ll keep fire out of there forever.

      Moreover, there’s more than ample evidence that systems benefit from periodic fire. In the case of the high elevation mixed conifer and lodgepole, well, those fires are gothic events: high severity, stand replacing disturbances that set the system back to near “zero.”

      Will this fire cost more than the 3 acre fire that we all love to smash? Sure it will.

      But make no mistake about it, that country wants to burn. It needs it. DC-10 or not.

      1. I know wildfire is part of ecosystem and needed for healthy forest, and sometimes we need to let them burn for future safety too. But, my point is if a fire threat properties and LIVES, then it’s not a matter of ecosystem anymore, and there is not such like ‘waste of money’. We don’t know which fire become deadly wildfire when a fire just started.

  13. In 1961 a VLAT was a B17. Too big won’t work etc, bla bla bla, sound familiar.
    One civilian Boeing 234 Chinook fourteen hours (dual crew) $120,000 per operational period, day after day after day on these escaped fires.

  14. My 2 Cents.

    I was the person that made the call on ordering the DC-10 on the Pinal Mt last summer on a 7 acre fire. At the time that was the only airtanker available to us. If you recall not a week earlier we couldn’t get airtankers on the 257 fire and had to order a type 2 team. We were in a mode of aggressive IA and if that means using the DC-10 so be it. It was 1 full load of retardant that was split into 8 different drops, the viedo only shows the last drop. I encourage all of you that would like to make the decisions on to use the DC-10 or not, apply for a job and then you can make those decisions. Don’t arm chair quaterback, when you have know idea of the situation that we deal with.

  15. AFMO as a taxpayer I thank you for making this decision. Is it not a better decision to ponder “not what we should do, but do what we are paid to do? The West Fork fire started June 5th, it seems that little or no suppression action was taken for over a week. Colorado was experiencing its third year of drought. Wasn’t it obvious to the area decision makers what would eventually occur? That DC 10 and seven acres was a great investment Thanks again for your service. (dean new book on horizon?)

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