Above: P2V air tankers at Rapid City Air Tanker Base during the Myrtle Fire, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
The federal land management agencies spend many millions of dollars flying aircraft over fires dropping retardant or water. When Congress and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ask how the numbers in the annual request for aerial firefighting funds were determined, they are often not satisfied with the answers, which may appear to come off the top of someone’s head. How many air tankers and helicopters do you need? How did you come up with those numbers? Are air tankers effective? How do you know?
After at least 14 studies on the use of air tankers since 1995, are the answers to these questions still scribbled on the back of an envelope?
The number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service has varied substantially in the last 15 years, from 44 in 2002 to 9 in 2013. In 2015 and 2016 there were 21 when the seasons started, plus approximately half a dozen or so on Call When Needed contracts in 2016. This year the numbers will not change much except for a few more that could be on CWN when a new round of contracts is awarded in a few months.
As we often say, aircraft do not put out fires. Under ideal conditions they can slow or temporarily stop the spread of a portion of a fire to enable ground personnel to move in and establish a fireline on the perimeter. Most wildland firefighters believe aircraft are an essential tool in their toolbox and can be very effective if used correctly. Those opinions are based on their experience on the fireground, however it is difficult to transfer that knowledge to decision-makers in Washington.
A report issued by the GAO in 2013 titled, Improvements Needed in Information, Collaboration, and Planning to Enhance Federal Fire Aviation Program Success (it is a very large file), included three recommendations:
- Expand efforts to collect information on aircraft performance and effectiveness to include all types of firefighting aircraft in the federal fleet;
- Enhance collaboration between the agencies and with stakeholders in the fire aviation community to help ensure that agency efforts to identify the number and type of firefighting aircraft they need reflect the input of all stakeholders in the fire aviation community; and
- Subsequent to the completion of the first two recommendations, update the agencies’ strategy documents for providing a national firefighting aircraft fleet to include analysis based on information on aircraft performance and effectiveness and to reflect input from stakeholders throughout the fire aviation community.
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.
The new Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) program gathered data from 2012 to 2014. Those first two years, USFS spokesperson Jennifer Jones told us, were preliminary to the full study:
That was done mainly as a methods development process and is not sufficient to provide statistically defensible analysis and results supporting the objectives identified by senior U.S. Forest Service leadership or GAO.
During the next two-year period, 2015 through 2016, data was collected on approximately 7,000 drops from more than 130 fires.
Mrs. Jones explained:
Since this data includes fires from many jurisdictions, fuel, weather and terrain conditions, the process of statistically characterizing the sample in terms of the population it represents requires merging data from many different sources. This work is ongoing, even for the 2015 data, but study management expects the process to be much quicker for subsequent years.
The USFS claims they have accomplished the first two items on GAO’s list regarding collaboration between the agencies. The last task is years away from completion. They plan to publish a peer-reviewed paper soon that will detail the methodology being used. Some early results of the study are expected later this year when they expect to release annual use summaries for 2015 and 2016 during 2017. Additional use summaries will come out several months following each data collection season.
After several more years when the sample size and statistical confidence increases, Mrs. Jones said, they expect to release findings related to the effectiveness and probability of success of aerial resources.
We asked Gary Barrett for his opinion about the AFUE study. Known as “Bean” to our readers, he is a former naval aviator and has contributed articles to this website. He brings a different background and point of view to the air tanker issue. Below are his comments:
“With data on 7000 drops on 130 fires over 4 years perhaps the AFUE program could have produced a report like this one [from Australia]. Or this one in the International Journal of Wildland Fire [from the US] . Or this one [from Australia].
And if wildfire fighting in the US is being done by a combined integrated air ground team, why aren’t reports like this one available after our big fires?
Why is it that Australia seems to encourage ops analysis and its application to firefighting and here in the US we haven’t caught up with the concept. Until US ops analysis gets going, there will be no definitive answers on the utility of US air tankers and how they are utilized.
Even New South Wales in Australia has an opinion on the utility of heavy air tankers and has initiated a study on large air tankers operating in Australia.”