Study shows correlation between rapid dispatch of air tankers and duration of wildfire

Data suggests duration of fires is shorter when air tankers are deployed early

C-130 air tanker retardant drop Canyon Fire California
A C-130 makes a retardant drop on the Canyon Fire in Napa County, California July 22, 2019. Photo by Kent Porter used with permission.

A study conducted by university researchers found that the speed of arrival of air tankers at a new fire is correlated with fires of shorter duration. Firefighters have known this for decades, but the use of data to confirm it has been lacking. It is a small step, until the eight-year Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study is released.

The research was commissioned by Global SuperTanker Services, the company that operates the 747 SuperTanker that can carry up to 19,200 gallons of fire retardant. Raw data about air tankers that were dispatched to 11,655 fires from 2014 through 2018 was acquired from the U.S. Forest Service by means of a Freedom of Information Act Request.

Keith L. Waters, Ph.D. and Stephen S. Fuller, Ph.D., of George Mason University who specialize in public policy and statistics, conducted the study. The factors they considered included the elapsed time between the first report of a wildfire and the arrival of air tankers at the fire. The duration of the fire was defined as the time between the first report and the arrival of the last air tanker over the fire.

Number Of AT Assignments Duration Of Fires air tankers

The study concluded, for example, that among 11,655 fires in which large air tankers were deployed, fires burned on average for less than one day when tankers were deployed in the first 4-6 hours of a reported fire. Fires in which tankers were deployed after 72 hours burned on average for more than 20 days.

wildfires Initial air tanker arrival

The researchers also analyzed “fires fought by the State of California”, and found that on the 6,278 fires, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had air tankers over the fires within one hour of the first report 96.7 percent of the time. That compares to 37.9 percent of “fires not fought by the State of California”.

This is not a perfect study, of course, just considering fire start times and the arrival of air tankers at the scene, but the researchers were dealing with the limited information produced by the Forest Service as a result of the FOIA. It does not consider the fuels at the point of origin, the weather, availability of air tankers, time of day, ground forces assigned, helicopters working the fire, and other factors. But it does provide food for thought and a category of air tanker data that is not normally seen.

More detailed conclusions could be reached if, for example there were a dozen data collectors on the ground and in the air at numerous fires for eight years observing objectives and outcomes for individual retardant/water drops; terrain, slope, fuel type; fire spread characteristics; weather conditions and other environmental factors that may influence retardant drop effectiveness. In other words, exactly what the Forest Service has been doing in the still secret Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) study that began in 2012.

The AFUE study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires, in order to better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft.

In hearings before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in both 2018 and 2019 the Forest Service told the Senators the results of the study would be released “soon”. In another hearing this week before the Committee Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen again said it would be released “soon”. When pressed by Colorado Senator Sen. Cory Gardner, who last year made his opinion about the delay very clear, she said it would be released “this Spring”. Senator Gardner said, “Before June?”. She said, “Yes”.  A clip from that exchange is below.

Link to the entire hearing

If detailed, unfiltered, and unbiased results of the study are not released in June, the Committee could subpoena the information.


Dr. Gabbert’s 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.

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7 thoughts on “Study shows correlation between rapid dispatch of air tankers and duration of wildfire”

  1. Wow it took a study to come to that conclusion. That’s one of the most basic and effective aerial attack strategies. It’s not magic, you hit them early and you hit them hard and then you count how much taxpayers money you saved.

  2. Agree with Al and” Dr. Gabbert”
    Hitting the fires hard, and early is a no brainer! Maybe a reason we need to increase the tanker fleet ?
    Is the USFS ,dragging their feet ?

  3. Get a load on the fire within 10 mins of detection, make sure you detect it within 6 mins of starting.

    A boot is the best fire fighting tool if it can get there fast enough.

  4. There does also need to be a continued discussion of the fire retardants and their long term effect on the environment and human and animal health as a matter or urgency.

  5. Always interested in the Study of Wild Fire Fighting, when it involves
    Government involvement.
    Have over time been surprised that now days people seem to believe that
    Wild Fire Fighting air craft are unable extinguish fire alone.
    Agree with both previous individual ” Time ” is the secret.
    Here on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada in years long ago,
    we’re blessed with a private firm named Forest Industries Flying Tankers,
    based at Sprout Lake. Never did a fire last more than a Few – Days.
    Yes, The Martin Mars water based aircraft never lost a fire ! Not One !

  6. Go big, go early, go home!
    This is the mantra of those practicing the Incident Command System (ICS).
    ICS was developed by firefighters, specifically after some tragedies fighting wildfires.
    This saying continues to hold water.
    Paging Doctor Obvious.

    1. Unfortunately, this generation of folks on the ground don’t see it that way. There are a few reasons for that, one would take away overtime, and another one is that it’s easier to burnout than to go direct. It may sound contradictory on a way, but the bigger the fire, the longer you can spend milking it.

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