How much does it cost to drop retardant on a fire?

We calculated the cost per delivered gallon

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Tanker 12, a BAe-146, drops on the Cave Fire Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy article about exclusive use Next Generation 3.0 air tanker contracts, the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study, air tanker availability since 2000, and the contracts that were awarded recently for Call When Needed (CWN) large and very large air tankers.

Today I added some calculated data to that article about the cost per delivered gallon from the CWN air tankers. In an effort to ensure this additional information does not get lost, I am including it again here.

Keep in mind the costs only apply to CWN air tankers which can be more than 50 percent higher than an exclusive use air tanker that is guaranteed several months of work. The initial dollar figures supplied by the Forest Service are based on the contracts that were awarded in December, 2019.

The U.S. Forest Service refused to give us the actual daily and hourly costs that the government agreed to when issuing the new CWN contracts to the six companies, but did supply the chart below with estimates based on the contract costs. The data assume the tankers were activated 36 days a year, for 4 years, and flew 100  hours each year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold up to 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were, 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS CWN contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and including fuel but not the costs of retardant, are:

Retardant Cost Delivered Gallon CWN

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant carried varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. The cost of retardant would add several dollars per gallon.

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

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10 thoughts on “How much does it cost to drop retardant on a fire?”

  1. Thanks Bill that’s a great article with excellent cyphering. After seeing the cost per hour of USFS/BLM/NPS contract aircraft, whether fixed wing or helicopter, several years ago I realized that each retardant sortie was worth many thousands of dollars. And I wasn’t even calculating the cost per gallon of retardant which I think is $2 – $5 per gallon. The hourly for sitting on the ramp all day without flying is worth many thousands of dollars as well. One retardant drop by the Spirit of John Muir would pay my four month per fire season USFS wages as a fire lookout for ten years. Go figure. Early detection is worth a lot in my humble opinion.

  2. And we wonder why the AFUES study will never be published!! The USFS has done nothing but make the VLAT guys beg for an opportunity, yet they are the more economical than the LAT fleet. Run the same analysis for CL-415 and Fire Bosses and you’ll be even more surprised by the numbers. It’s why the RAND report was swept under the rug in 2012 – it would lead to putting all the LATs in a graveyard in New Mexico and for the ONE retardant manufacturer in the world to go out of business. The Europeans laugh at the way we use LATs in this country when they primarily use scooping aircraft and Type 1 helos.

  3. How much does an incident really cost when you allow a fire to escape containment during the initial attack period (first two hours) while you are trying to find a CWN fixed wing tanker? Somewhat like trying to flagging down a cap in New York City during the afternoon rush. The CWN concept works well for the helicopter community. It’s all team work. Knock the fire down with crews and retardant and work the helicopters to establish a solid containment. The cost per gallon for the VLAT’s (DC 10) is very close to a report conducted by several Cal Fire employees about fifteen years ago.

  4. The quest to pin down cost per gallon of aerially delivered retardant is a tantalizing adventure. Unfortanately – the line item does not exist as a budget line item anywhere in the government.

    and Air Tanker Base Manager cannot even tell you the cost per gallon pumped into an aircraft because it is not calculated that way.

    consider all the inputs – and these are just a few:
    Air tanker contract cost
    Contract retardent employees
    air tanker base Regular employees
    Lead plane aircraft cost per flight hour
    Lead plane fuel
    Lead plane driver wages
    Aircraft Dispatcher Facility
    Dispatch radio and communication infrastructure
    Dispatch and Lead plane off season training
    Overtime for all employees
    Air Tanker Base facility costs
    The administrative cost to the government to inspect the aircraft.
    The cost of water pumped and delivered and mixed
    The pickled loads that never made it to the fire due to malfunction or safety of lfight
    The countless number of contracting officers and ex-military re-hires who administer the air tanker program at the FS WO and NIFC.

    I am confident the ratios would remain the same but likely add 2-4 more zeros before the decimal.

    1. That’s a big part of the problem. Attempting to charge every possible expense and infer that it’s a retardant cost. It’s not.

      Leadplanes: while valuable and often invaluable, and in the case of a few airtankers, a requirement, these are NOT part of the cost pumped retardant, nor are they part of the cost of a delivered gallon. One might as well infer that the man on the ground calling for the retardant is part of that cost too, and this is not correct.

      While fires attempt to lump every cost into one, and accounting is done by charging to the fire, the cost of retardant pumped and retardant delivery is far from elusive. It’s well known and well established. The hourly costs have always been known; no secret. The retardant costs at the pump are known. You can attempt to tie in all manner of sundry costs, but those are separate.

      For aircraft with managers, individual daily cost summaries are executed, and for those without specific managers, tanker base managers and others associated with the program closely monitor costs. The actual cost of a pumped gallon of retardant is a known quantity. The delivered cost is a variable depending on the time it takes to get to the fire, delays, number of passes, etc.

      Jettisoned loads are accounted and are also part of cost summaries, as is the flight time attached to that.

      Wages of tanker crews and wages of those pumping the retardant, where employees of the retardant company, are known and are part of the cost of the tanker or the retardant; they’re already fired in. Where separate units exist that use vendor materials but pump the retardant, those costs are part of the unit performing that mission (eg, tanker base, etc). One might as well suggest that the hotshot crew on the ground that receives the retardant is part of the cost, but that would be ridiculous. They’re a separate cost. So are the personnel at the tanker base; they’re a cost of the USFS, BLM, BIA, etc. They’re a separate cost, and not the cost of the delivered gallon, though for accounting purposes they’re often charged out that way.

      Fuel charges are already calculated into the cost of the tanker in some cases, and in others are provided separately, but are part of the cost summary. Again, known numbers that are calculated on a daily basis during operation.

      Certainly one can inflate the numbers by picking every possible cost and attempting to tie it into the retardant cost, but that’s spinning the numbers and artificially inflating them.

      1. Well said Doug. I have been trying to write a response to this for a few hours now. You have hit the nail on the head.

      2. One thing for sure is that scoopers and Firebosses deliver water which is free and it seems to get overlooked, besides mentioning the gallons per hour delivered to the head of the fire.

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