Air tanker study has collected data on 7,000 drops

It will be several years before data is released about the effectiveness of aerial resources.

P2V air tankers

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:

  1. Expand efforts to collect information on aircraft performance and effectiveness to include all types of firefighting aircraft in the federal fleet;
  2. 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
  3. 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.”

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7 thoughts on “Air tanker study has collected data on 7,000 drops”

  1. We all know that Air tankers are rarely requested by Divs or IC’s. There are f reasons why an air tanker would show up on your fire:

    It is part of a Dispatch run card for fire behavior conditions and geography for an IA
    It was requested by OPS -Rare
    It was requested by ATGS
    It was requested by the Lead Plane driver that is/was working with the ATGS
    It was requested by a Smokejumper Jump plane Spotter

    4/5 times an airtanker is being dispatched by somebody who does not have boots on the ground.

    1. That is an interesting statement that it is rare that was requested by ops. I have personally heard Ops and ICs order fixed wing tankers to fires many times. Also the ATGS, lead planes, and smoke jumper spotters are talking to the guys on the ground.

    2. CM , you might want to go back to Basic ICS. The ATGS works for the IC. All IC’s have the responsibility and ownership of saying yes or no to retardant. If the tanker is part of a run card, they will ask the chief officer for their request. They rarely, if ever ” go rogue ” and drop without clearance. Your assumptions and ” analysis ” are ludicrous.

      1. I understand what the GOA is trying to accomplish. SCC, “they will ask the chief officer for their request”? Who is they? “Analysis are ludicrous”, probably not. CM was in the ball park but left out many players who could request an air tanker or helicopter. A close friend of mine was Ops (Cal Fire) on a large So. Cal. fire; he made the first immediate need request for the DC 10, it does happen. It was mentioned the use of LATs as a last resort, afternoon (air show), each fire is different. At the height of the burning period, the fire is usually working us and not the other way around. I wonder if the GOA is going to question why the Forest Service needs a off the show room floor C 130? Can something be over-studied when there are so many variables?

  2. A few observations…

    First on Bean’s “opinion” (I say “opinion” because it’s really a list of questions, not opinions… I’ve read a lot of Bean’s posts and have a good deal of respect for his opinion), papers that can hold up to scrutiny in the scientific community take time to produce. If you’ll notice in first Aussie paper he mentioned (great links by the way!), it was published in 2007 with data collected in 2004/2005 and 2005/2005 fire seasons… so it took a bit of time to go through the data. If the AFUE study didn’t really start collecting huge amounts of data until 2015, then things might be on schedule… time will tell. Science doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t have a journal subscription to get to the second big paper linked (the time estimate study)… looks good though.

    Second, while searching for a non-subscription version of the time estimate paper, I came across this:

    Kind of looks to me like some of that AFUE data might already being used to do analysis? Maybe there’s more out there? I agree that we (US fire agencies) probably need to do more case study reviews of incidents… I think some of that is happening internally, but perhaps there should be a different, more transparent process.

    Nice to see the USFS is doing something, even if it’s going slow…I look forward to seeing how it all plays out, especially with the new administration looking to be budget hawkish.

    1. The USFS study you found [Firefighting in the Heat of the Day] was first published in the Australian International Journal of Wildfire. The USFS later provided non paywalled access via the link you found. The study implied the data was not from AFUE. OLMS data provided the timing and operational flight environment information. The OLMS program purpose is to provide stress data to monitor airframe structural fatigue. Its use in this report is very innovative. Hats off to the researchers.

      This study should cause some thinking about air tanker employment: a few snips …

      “Drops occur most frequently in late afternoon, for both grass and timber, in extreme slopes.”
      “these results suggest that LATs are used on fires that are inherently difficult to contain and may also indicate objectives at play beyond basic incident containment”
      “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.”
      “Currently, the factors affecting prepositioning decisions for the national airtanker fleet are poorly understood.”
      “The frequent use of LATs at the peak of the daily burning period and in steep terrain suggests that LATs may be viewed as a resource of last resort”
      Another question that comes to mind after reading the report: If LAT’s are possibly being viewed/ utilized as a resource of last resort, does that indicate that the ground segment of the firefighting team doesn’t view LAT’s as an integrated part of the effort?

      1. FYI: the International Journal of Wildland Fire is one of the two publications of the International Association of Wildland Fire. As far as I know, it’s the only peer reviewed professional journal totally dedicated to wildland fire. The other publication of the IAWF is Wildfire magazine.

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