We asked Forest Service Chief why air tankers were cut by 35%

P2V air tanker 07

Above: Tanker 07, a P2V, drops retardant on the Red Canyon Fire nine miles southwest of Pringle, SD July 9, 2016.

The U.S. Forest Service has cut the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year by 35 percent, from 20 to 13. We asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, why, and she responded in writing Tuesday:

The reduction in Exclusive Use contracts is due to the “Legacy” Exclusive Use Airtanker contract expiring in 2017.

The Forest Service has known for years that 2017 would be the last season for the Korean War vintage P2V’s with the 18-cylinder radial engines. In 2013 the agency began a contracting effort to bring in “next generation” turbine-powered aircraft with the ultimate goal of eliminating the P2V’s. The last four that were on contract in 2017 are now retired and most will find final resting places in museums.

Victoria Christiansen
Victoria Christiansen

In addition to losing the four P2V’s, the Forest Service cut three Next Gen BAe-146’s this year.

In February U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues were affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner.

Chief Christiansen told us this week they will have “up to 16” large air tankers available through Call When Needed (CWN) contracts. This is an increase over the 11 the FS told us about in February.

If CWN air tankers are available the cost can be up to 54 percent higher than those on EU contracts.

There are two costs for air tankers — daily plus hourly. If the aircraft just sits at an air tanker base available with a flight crew it only earns the daily availability rate. When it flies, an hourly rate is added.

We averaged the daily and hourly EU and CWN rates for three models of air tankers provided by three different companies, BAe-146 by Neptune, RJ85 by Aero Flite, and C-130 (382G) by Coulson. The numbers below are the combined averages of the three aircraft:

EU Daily: $30,150
EU Hourly: $7,601
CWN Daily: $46,341 (+54%)
CWN Hourly: $8,970 (+18%)

These costs only account for the additional costs of contracting for the air tankers, and do not include any increased costs of new, small wildfires escaping initial attack due to a lack of available air tankers or Type 1 helicopters (which have also been cut, from 34 to 28). And it does not include property damage or, heaven forbid, lives lost.

Art Prints

In addition to the 13 air tankers on EU and the 11 (or 16) that may or may not be available on CWN, the Forest Service will use one Coast Guard HC-130H. They will also have access to up to seven military C-130’s which can be outfitted temporally with 3,000-gallon MAFFS retardant systems. And, they have occasionally borrowed air tankers from Canada and the state of Alaska if they were available.

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18 thoughts on “We asked Forest Service Chief why air tankers were cut by 35%”

  1. CWN contracts definitely cost more per day and per hour, but that cost is only when the aircraft is actually in use, correct? On the other hand, EU contracts cost less per day and hour, but the “sit there on standby 24/7” cost is there every day, whether the aircraft is flying or not…….maybe I’m missing something?

  2. They may be betting that 13 tankers can cover each geographical area season, moving around as the activity moves. Then adding CWN tankers during the main overlapping months (July, August). 1 EU tanker for 150 days is approximately $4.5 m, versus 1 CWN tanker for 60 days is approximately $2.7m. Makes sense if we don’t have a greater need during everyone’s shoulder seasons.

    1. This is exactly the type of analysis that needs to happen… what is the average EU availability period (mandatory plus extensions)? Vs the average CWN? Next if you had the average # of flight hours… you could really flesh out a cost comparison. Especially if you could break out usage by month as suggested above… it’d be a pretty simple analysis that would definitely leave you with a way to build some scenarios of X # of EUs, and Y # of CWNs. Throw in some research on contractor bids (shorter availability periods might be cheaper, but the bids may go up), and somewhere in there is a good balance, right? Hard saying…
      If I can figure this out… I am sure the WO folks have too. My only question is why haven’t they trotted out something like this to explain it?
      Jeff is on the money though they are probably trying to find a balance that will maintain capability when needed against cost.

  3. What is the obsession over large air tanker numbers Bill? Is it a vendetta against the Forest Service? Why don’t you scrutinize the NPS or BLM for not participating in Large Air Tanker contracting as well? Or better yet some of the states too? Same gripe, new spin, every other week.

    1. BLM was in the LAT contracting as well for many years. After 2003 it was agreed that the FS would handle all LATs and VLATS contracts and BLM would handle all the SEATs. If you have a solution to this problem please share. I have asked people at the BLM National level why BLM does not contract LATs and its always the same response as I stated above.

  4. I find Ms, Vicki Christiansen’s response ,less than candid and as well ,evasive . If one were to look at all of the potential regions [Forests] ,wherein there is Wildfire potential ;then the USFS and the DOI have extremely limited their Wildfire capabilities ! Has anyone looked at a map of the Western US and the Dakotas ? They have created an impossible task for themselves with the reduction of Aircraft . They are “betting” irrationally , unless the intent is to LET THEM BURN ?

  5. The article doesn’t mention the cut of the 2 EU contacts for scooper aircraft that are probably the highest capability firefighting aircraft available. BIG MISTAKE

    1. GOOD POINT . I have personally watched 2 CL 415’s operating about 2 miles from my home on a Montana lake . The fire was about 4 N M from my home, and these aircraft were superbly effective .
      The problem was ,they pulled them out after 2 days ,when portions of the fire were still active . Guess they wanted more forest to burn . Very odd!
      We should have one or more CL 415’s in each Western State .

      1. You don’t know what’s happening on the ground and until you are physically out there calling the shots, why is it so difficult for you to believe that FFers and fire management officials are doing the best they can?!

        1. You are entirely missing the point ,DM. I don’t think that anyone is criticizing the FF’s . It is upper level management and the Politicians that are the problem !

          1. Chuck, it’s so much more than upper level mgmt. and politicians. It’s just not that simple. It is never just a one or two directional finger point; there are lots aspects as to how wild land fires are fought, managed and controlled. I for one, really do believe that the vast majority of politicians both sides, FFers, and all levels of public land management do their utmost best to find a balance among safety, cost, resources, and land management when dealing with wild fires.

        2. DM Chuck is correct. I highly doubt Bill is criticizing anyone at the boots on the ground level its a Washington Office Management problem.

  6. I’ve been on the ground for nearly 40 years with USFS as an IC and Type 1 Operations Section and as a Forest Fire Chief. The FFs are doing a great job and they need all the tools in the tool box made available to them. The politicians and WO need to do a better job supporting the folks on the ground.

  7. Air tanker companies can’t do any level of financial planning if they have to rely on CWN contracts. Give out only CWN contract and you put Tanker companies in a bad spot. Not to mention pilots are going to have a very hard time with that schedule, trust me it’s no fun never know when or if you will work. It takes a long time to get a pilot captain qualified and if pilots aren’t happy they won’t stick around, especially in today’s pilot job market.

    1. Yeah but, if the companies are going to offer the aircraft for cwn work, the FS will take advantage of that.

  8. The 747 tanker and ALL of the available dc10 tankers should be flying 24-7! work it out and get these massive fires out! Politics be damned…save the people, animals, and property now!

  9. Oh my God… Here’s the bottom line in economics. Fires that rage out of control, cost BILLIONS. The recent shut down of I-5 in California cost BILLIONS in commerce as well.
    Soooooo… unless I am having some sort of mental problem, would it not be prudent for California to approach our dear friend the US government, to finance some really awesome aircraft for fire fighting at an interest rate at whatever? And with plain sitting on the ground with no pilots… There are no pilots anywhere on the face of this earth we could bring in, really? And just a footnote I think the US forestry service needs to be under new management, and our senators and congressmen need to kick some serious ass in DC.
    And why should our president or Congress pass any measures to help the America that’s on fire… Yes indeed why, after all they are not on fire why should they care!

    I think this issue will not get resolved unless it’s at the polls. Local state and federal. Sincerely Gina wright
    PS. When pilots are poached, it is usually about a $ sign. Head hunt these guys before they graduate, sweeten the deal till they say yes… Whatever we have to give them I suggest it would save billions in the end.

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