Forest Service needs to be more transparent while spending hundreds of millions contracting for firefighting aircraft

Fifteen large federal air tankers is not enough for the United States

CAL Fire air tanker 118 C-130
CAL FIRE air tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. The Forest Service was given seven of these HC-130Hs formerly owned by the Coast Guard in order to convert them to air tankers, but lost interest and regifted them to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Photo by John Vogel March 4, 2020. CAL FIRE will be getting them in the air over the next couple of years.


Now that the U.S. Forest Service has activated two Call When Needed air tankers, there will be 15 large and very large federal air tankers on duty.

For the United States.

In 2002 there were 44 on exclusive use contracts. After two air tankers crashed that year killing the five that were on board, the Forest Service weeded out the World War II aircraft and beefed up the safety standards. During the next three years the numbers dropped from 44 to 18, and kept falling until the fleet barely existed in 2013, leaving only 9.  The air tanker fleet has not been rebuilt — 18 years should have been sufficient time.

Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019. Revised 2-24-2020. Fire Aviation.

It is possible that the Forest Service will bring on more CWN tankers in the next month, but this year the agency will not disclose any information publicly about their aerial firefighting contracts that consume hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. Fire Director Shawna Legarza (during her last month in the job) and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen need to shift out of their secret mode and be far more transparent. If they were proud of what they were doing it would be logical to make their decisions public. I would recommend an investigation by the Department’s Inspector General, but recently five IGs in the federal government have been fired and replaced with political lap dogs.

There needs to be accountability for how these huge decisions are made and how taxpayers’ dollars are being used. Are they being spent wisely? When will they release the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness Study that has been going on for eight years? Launched in 2012 at a cost of about $1.3 million annually, the study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft used on wildfires. In FY 2017 for example, the most recent year with exact numbers available, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If ever completed the AFUE study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient, and effective tools for the job.

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 in February of this year after Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican, asked when it would be made public, Chief Christiansen at first said “soon”, and when pressed by the Senator said it would be released before June, 2020.

This week I asked Forest Service spokesperson Stanton Florea when it would be released, and he said “soon”.  When I asked him again for a date, he said, “We expect to have it available soon, Bill.” They have learned they can get away with stonewalling Congress and taxpayers –and don’t care.

One knowledgeable person I talked with in D.C. thinks AFUE may never be released, which would not be without precedent. When the Forest Service did not like the recommendations in an air tanker study conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2012, they refused to release it, even after Wildfire Today filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Eventually the Rand Corporation made it public. If it is not released, Chief Christiansen and Director Legarza would be following the example set by former Fire and Aviation Director Tom Harbour about refusing to make taxpayer-funded air tanker studies public.

The leaders in the Forest Service, Senators, Representatives, and the personnel in the White House need to accept responsibility for the sorry state of our fixed wing air tanker fleet. They are the ones that introduce and pass legislation, or allow it to be introduced, that determines the amount of funding allocated for fire aviation. When they write letters, little is accomplished. Actions speak louder than a written word.

You can't fight wildfires on the cheap.

During the COVID-19 pandemic while our firefighters have one hand tied behind their backs, it is important to spend our money wisely and support our firefighters on the ground with rapid attacks on emerging wildfires using overwhelming force from both the air and the ground. (see Dr. Gabbert’s Prescription , June 26, 2012)

Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote March 19, 2020 in an article titled, “Fighting wildfires during a pandemic.”

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on federal exclusive use (EU) contracts. Last year and at the beginning of this year there are only 13. That is a ridiculous number even in a slow fire season like last year when 20 percent of the requests for large air tankers were unfilled. The number of acres burned in the lower 48 states in 2019 was the least since 2004.

There are so few large airtankers on EU contracts that dispatchers have to guess where fires will erupt and move the aircraft around, like whack-a-mole.

The U.S. Forest Service says they can have “up to” 18 large air tankers on EU contract, but that will only be possible if and when they finally make awards based on the Next-Generation 3.0 exclusive use air tanker solicitation that was first published November 19, 2018. There are an additional 17 large air tankers on call when needed (CWN) contracts that can be activated, but at hourly and daily rates much higher than those on EU.

If multiple large air tankers and helicopters could attack new fires within 20 to 30 minutes we would have fewer large fires.

40 Large Air Tankers

Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Until that takes place and the aircraft are sitting on ramps at air tanker bases, all 17 of the large air tankers on call when needed contracts need to be activated this summer. Right now, only one large air tanker is working.

50 Type 1 Helicopters

Several years ago the number of the largest helicopters on EU contracts, Type 1, were cut from 34 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50. Until that happens 22 additional CWN Type 1 helicopters should be activated this summer.

We often say, “air tankers don’t put out fires”. Under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area. If firefighters are not nearby, in most cases the flames will eventually burn through or around the retardant. During these unprecedented circumstances brought on by the pandemic, we may at times need to rely much more on aerial firefighting than in the past. And there must be an adequate number of firefighters available to supplement the work done from the air.  It must go both ways. Firefighters in the air and the ground support each other.

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40 thoughts on “Forest Service needs to be more transparent while spending hundreds of millions contracting for firefighting aircraft”

  1. Looks like this season as a potential to be very active. With the unknown always being Southern California which can make the season last sometimes into December and January. I would agree the lack of large air tankers really need to be look at and why the forest service isn’t putting the dc-10’s and 747 on EU. At least they are beefing up helicopters which looks to be 51-52 this year as opposed to 28. Be interesting to see if they ever announce if coulson will actually have the San Bernardino 4 year but really even the extra 90 day contracts they gave this year should all be 4 year its a win win nothing only for the operators but the Forest service gets a better price in availability and the response time are better than having traditional CWN.

  2. Your right, Bill; they don’t care ! After all it’s [USFS] just another Federal Bureaucracy; answering to no one !
    Most everyone with a brain knows, or should know that we need more FF ,aircraft!

  3. It is constantly brought up the number of tankers in 2002 v current. Is that the best measure of efficacy? What is the total capacity difference, dispatch reliability, speed, coordination of resources etc. now vs then? Maybe there is a large gap or maybe the overall deliverability is superior now aka doing more with less.

  4. Can someone please direct me to the research-based reports which show the effectiveness of aerial fire fighting appliances in putting out fires? There seems little doubt that aerial appliances are very good at protecting infrastructure from fires but I haven’t been able to find any reports showing beyond reasonable doubt that air tankers and helicopters etc are effective against forest fires.

    1. Here is a very good study by Australia. It was conducted when Australia was primarily utilizing helos and single engine air tankers. The Australian study clearly shows that air resources clearly make a difference when supporting initial attack efforts.

      As Bill mentioned, the USFS/ Department of Agriculture has yet to produce a good study on air tanker effectiveness. The USFS started collecting data 8 years ago for AFUE and still no published study.

      1. Good link Bean…wheeled SEATs, Fire Bosses and helos (aircraft that aren’t generally dependent on phos-chek to make a living and can scoop or pick-up water from lakes and rivers) are HEAVILY and effectively used in Australia, South American and Europe. The Australian study proves that getting small amounts of water/retardant on a fire early works. This past winter, after three years of assessing ALL possible aerial platforms, both fixed wing and helo, the Swedish government put out a solicitation for 4 Fire Bosses. The math works. Granted, Sweden’s topography works well for Fire Bosses, but remember what the Rand report found out – 2/3s of all the fires they studied in the U.S. were within an acceptable distance from a scoopable water source. It seems that the FS doesn’t do math and can’t calculate cost per gallon delivered….I think the FS calculators were donated by phos-chek 😉

        1. Cost per gallon delivered is not a measure of efficiency or effectiveness. It is simply a number. To evaluate efficiency, benefits need to be included as efficiency involves benefit/cost. I was the leader and author of the first three National airtanker studies. All included our best attempt at including benefits. One can argue all they want on if thee benefits are valid today but at least we spent 1000’s of hours trying to do the correct analysis. Not NATS1 recommended 39 large airtankers, 3000-5000 gallons in size. Interesting on how that approximate number keeps being mentioned. That was in 1996, 24 years ago. As a side note, the big issue with the Rand study is not proximity to water. Have you ever looked up the cost for new CL-415 or what the daily availability and flight rates are?

      2. Thanks for the comments and link to the Australian study. Even though this study came to positive conclusions about the use of aerial appliances, it nonetheless recommends further field trials due to an absence of data, so it seems surprising to me that, both in Australia and the US, aerial appliances have such strong political support when there is so little on-ground evidence to support the expenditure of very large sums of money.

        1. Maybe the AFUE study has a flaw in it’s methods of data collection and analysis? Talk to firefighters about the effectiveness of aircraft at fires and you’re likely to get a good picture of their benefit. Although anecdotal, their observations can’t be too far from the truth.

          The effectiveness of aircraft at fires is dependent on when and how they are utilized. I consistently see wildland agencies using aircraft in ways that are ineffective. That’s a product of inadequate training and supervision of ground personnel, and a fixation on how aircraft have been used within those organizations in the past.

          1. The AFUE study is based on talking to firefighters. The firefighters who make the call on what aircraft to order and how to use them report that to the AFUE modules, and the AFUE modules record the fuels, conditions and fire behavior at the time of the drop, along with the outcome. If firefighters are being honest, the dataset will reflect the combined wisdom of the entire firefighting community. If not, then our old ways and biases will continue to stick with us.

    2. As one who is involved in aerial core fighting. Helicopters can be extremely effective at putting the fire out when they are called into action when the fire is small. Nothing on this green earth can out a fire out once it turns into a raging inferno. Which is exactly what the forest circus wants.

    3. What competent wildland fire manager/firefighter has ever relied on aerial fire fighting appliances for “putting out fires?” Their use is to restrict the advance of the fire until on-the-ground fire fighters with hand tools and hose lays can put it out. The value of the aerial application is to buy time and reduce intensity for the ground forces – not to put it out

  5. I have actually witnessed first hand how air support of all types have put out fires of small size. When fires start and the equipment is available and it is hit hard air support is a big big factor in the fire going out. But in the prime of the season when resources are low in availability it becomes harder to either slow or extinguish fires thus the call and reasoning for more aircraft. Of course we all know weather and other factors can determine the complexity of putting out a fire but the more resources you have available in a given high fire prone area the better chance you have of keeping the fire small. The smaller a fire is kept the less ground resources you need to check and make sure the fire is out. Also I see a lot the comparison of the number of LARGE air tankers from 2002 being 44 and now only 18. As being in this industry since 1993 I can tell you those 44 large tankers would deliver way more water or retardant than the current 18. And again I’m still surprised that all the dc-10s and the 747 are not on a EU contract.

  6. A great first step in greater transparency would be to put out a solid strategic plan. Best I can tell, this 2 year old document is the only aviation strategy USFS has released publicly —

    This document is…strange…and dated…and weak. What does “next gen” really mean? Why are VLATs not part of the plan? Why all the focus on arguing against C-130s, argue FOR something.

    Is this really “the strategic plan?” Because it is neither strategic or a real plan.

  7. High five to you Bill for calling out Shawna, Vicki and Tom Harbour on all of this. How many multi-million dollar studies do they need to tell them that their current aerial strategy isn’t enough or that it is using the wrong type of aircraft?! The lack of leadership in the FS right now is astonishing. The organization’s lack of leadership over the last two decades has led to it not receiving enough funding over time to keep pace with the advance of wildfires on our landscape. This has resulted in “Managed Fire”, or put another way, “we know we have 83 million acres that need be thinned and Rx burned, but really don’t have the money to do it or the will to push back against the environmental groups that oppose those initiatives, so we’ll let fire do our work. If over a decade or this strategy kills a couple hundred people, destroys towns and property and leads to increased respiratory disease for millions who live in smoke choked parts of the country every year its ok, they won’t blame us because we tried really hard”

    For those calling for the 747 – remember that it has never passed the cup test and has only operated sporadically over the last 4 years. 19,000 gallons yes, but only about 15-20% of that amount gets to where its needed on the ground due to the gate design, thus the failure of the cup test. DC-10, different story – it does what it says it does. 747 is for CNN .

    1. 747, you might want to check with Cal Fire ATGS’s and ASM’s to determine your claims of retardant delivery effectiveness on a going fire. Recently Global Supertanker submitted a cost comparison of different air tankers, cost per gallon delivered. Remember it was the Forest Service that had no interest in the DC 10. Once again Cal Fire determined the DC 10 was not only effective in all types of terrain and the cost per gallon was inline with other air tankers. There is little doubt that the Forest Service “ship” is without a rudder and the captain has fallen over board. Nothing new here.

      1. Hey Boise Watcher…thanks for the chuckle here…we need to keep this light hearted as the world melts down around us…anyways, no, not an employee of 10T. Do know the Company pretty well and have seen the DC10 do its thing…its very good…just works

  8. I’ll say this again, more aggressive firefighting from the ground is needed to support retardant. Right now, alot of the retardant use on fires is in areas where ground crews can’t get to in a reasonable amount of time to support it. That’s why you see alot of red stripes in the middle of the black. Again, for retardant to be effective, it needs to be used sooner than later, and in areas where ff can get in and support it. This is fundamental. Except for point protection, retardant on large fires is generally a waste. Yes, we need more air tankers, but I do think a mix of EU and CWN is more cost effective. These NG tankers can move around faster than the legacy ones. Calfire has a good model. Yes, they turn around their tankers a decent amount of time, but they use the retardant effectively, and keep many of their fires small. They also have a lot of support from the ground available close by. That is the key to retardant use.

  9. Although this year may be a little different in how the US Forest Service acts on fires due to covid-19 there is a huge difference between cal-fire and the forest service and how they attack fires. You must remember cal-fire is a actual fire department and no matter the fire there mission is to get the fire out as quickly as possible. The forest service is a fire management agency so their plan of attack is much different.

    1. I agree Ron. I bleed green, but wanted to point out how effective Calfire’s retardant use is. Throw in their immediate use of helicopters and it works more often than not. The FS has fires that are farther removed from quickly delivered ground resources also, so they are behind the curve from the beginning.

  10. Same old same old after reading thru the comments. The folks who need the planes want useful ones which means having access to the right planes at the right time. The people who award contracts tho get their raises based on how much money they manage. And if you want to pretend to have expertise, then you whine about the DC-10 or whatever plane actually works right now and instead buy something built off of vendor promises.

    We bomb countries with B-52s still because the B-1 and B-2 bombers never actually worked. Too many “necessary” capabilities and not enough basic ones. A bomber doesn’t have to be stealthy, not if you want a show of force, and if you want to bomb stealthily or safely, use cruise missiles. Get the right tool for the right job. Same with the Osprey. You don’t need vertical take off and landing if you have helicopters.

    The people awarding the contracts want B-1s to show they are getting ahead of the game.

  11. I appreciate all the informative comments. I would like to add a few key points for consideration:

    1. This is a very different year and things need to be done very differently. We better know this and act like it or thousands of people will needlessly become ill or die.
    2. The concept of “managed fires” must be taken off the table this year.
    3. The goal is to put out every fire immediately. Reduce response time by 80 percent!
    4. Smoke is also a killer. We must keep it to a minimum. See item No. 3.
    5. Fully utilize smaller, more agile aircraft and helicopters.
    6. Use larger aircraft more in a support role; their response time is far too slow for quick, agile response.
    7. Fully utilize smokejumpers and other specialized firefighters to augment Initial Attack.
    8. Pre-position resources much better than ever before. The mantra: “be close to the incident, react quickly and put all wildfires out immediately THIS YEAR.”
    9. Seek added funds. If only the COVID-19 pandemic and fire suppression tactics are addressed, the estimate is +$1.7 billion. If delayed forest maintenance — including hazardous fuels reduction – is added, the cost is about +$5.3 billion. To be clear, adequate funding is lacking. I have a breakdown for those interested.
    10. We must do all we can to keep people safe and well. Our behavior is being watched. Remember, this year is a very different. Traditional tactics must be adjusted to more timely, agile responses.

  12. A lot of good comments above – if you are talking about large fires. Also a lot of reference to numbers of LATs and VLATs and studies. Does anyone have any information available that it takes less retardant or water to keep a fire tacked down at the earliest lapse time after the initial report than allowing it to burn for hours? I have been involved in wildland firefighting for the past 60+ years (obviously not hands on for awhile) and my non-scientific observations indicate an air tanker or helicopter delivering suppressant or retardant at the earliest opportunity is far more valuable than a LAT or VLAT 2-3 hours after report. Even if the larger ATs are available most fire managers hesitate to deploy them immediately on the initial report of a fire due to cost. Smaller aircraft in larger numbers strategically placed are a much more efficient initial attack (IA) option than LATs and VLATs. Actually the number of LATs and VLATs under contract may not be all that wrong for large fire support and even IA in limited situations if combined with a well distributed complement of smaller ATs (SEATS , Fire Bosses, and other medium size ATs like the Super Scoopers and Cal Fires S-2Ts). The Cal Fire fleet has been a great asset to the FS in California for the last 40-50 years. I was FMO on the Tahoe NF for 17 years and the two S-2s (and now S-2Ts) were and are a mainstay in our IA response following the retirement of the F7Fs in the mid-1970s..
    I have said for years that the AT was one of, if not the best, IA tool since the fire engine, but was usually very poorly utilized on large fires. As always the tool must be used and used properly to be of value and cost effective, and the quicker the response the less it takes!!

  13. I find it interesting that suddenly in the last couple of months I have seen much more support for single engine air tankers than in the past. It almost looks like an organized effort.

    1. Yes, to a certain degree. 2-6 SEAT drops on initial attack is cost effective if you can keep the fire small. Any more than that, it’s usually better to have a LAT or two. Even the VLAT use in most instances is more cost effective than using 3 LATs. Depends on what you have available nearby. Not to mention the risk mitigation of fewer take-offs and landings (whole other discussion). Helicopters with a close water source tend to be the best IA air resource, IMO, IF you have people on the ground to support it!

      1. SEATs are still awesome on large fires, they can fill LAPTgaps, get retardant into tighter places, and buff out critical corners and areas. A pair of SEATS and 2 BA146s on load an return can really get things done.

  14. It’s probably because reality is coming home, especially THIS YEAR. If the goal, and I think it should be, is to “be close to the incident, react quickly and put all wildfires out immediately”, then a more full utilizations of smaller, more agile fire suppression equipment and personnel will serve the American people very well.

  15. There’s growing passion and growing intelligence in the SENRC hearings, Fire Aviation articles and comments on the USFS LAT program. It’s heartening, but the debate is barely scratching the surface of the situation. For instance, Mr. Carlton did not mention an incredibly informative bit of work he did in another of his studies: refer to page 17 of This one page has more strategic planning utility than the entire Avid study, and the implications are entirely ignored by our current contracting, dispatch and training systems.

    Calling for more airtankers or more published studies doesn’t fix the systemic incapability to effectively employ more resources. The agencies have critical shortages of personnel in basically every operational position that’s required to support air or ground responses in fast-moving, complex situations, and it takes years to build up those ranks. The fruits of the AFUE study will provide fodder for more debate, but without an implementation plan backed by funding, top-level support and effective oversight, it will end up being just another report on the shelf.

  16. Thank goodness for Gabbert. Without a doubt, the most informed wildfire trade journalist in the U.S., if not the world. Not surprisingly, when a top tier media outlet needs an education on wildfires for one of their stories, they do what good journalists do and reach out to a real expert trade journalist like Gabbert — ex:

    Bill is part of the solution. But for all of us pulling our hair out as the 2020 wildfire season is about to collide with Covid-19, it’s time for OUR solutions. And solutions relative to the cabal of incompetence that is USFS leadership today must come in the form of a firestorm of political and public pressure. Fortunately for this cause, but not for those whose lives and homes will soon be at risk, we have imminent calamity in our arsenal.

    I’ve joined a growing organization in Washington that is about to turn up the heat big time. We are about to pull the trigger on a petition that has set the goal of 15 million signatures by mid July. Remember, it’s an election year. Trump, Dept. of Agriculture Secretary Perdue, Congress, Dept. of Interior, BLM, Indian Affairs, and the governors, etc. will have their election year ears to the ground. The petition’s theme is simple — total reboot of USFS Fire Aviation, toss em all out, start fresh, and grow up. Come up with a real aerial firefighting plan that’s based on data. Engage real firefighters in the plan development. Christiansen goes. Lagarza’s staff — go with her to Colorado. More Boise influence, less Washington BS.

    Note this hearing in the U.S. Senate next Tuesday — This is a big one, the last hearing on wildfire prep before members return home for the summer Congressional recess, campaigning, and for the members from western states…watching their state burn this summer wishing that the feds had more than 15 fixed wing tankers along with other woefully inadequate resources.

    1. Wildfire Change Agent – what you lay out above is FANTASTIC!! When you get that link set-up, please post it here! Looking forward to it! Whats’s the name of the organization?

  17. The process of contracting for multiple airtankers with multiple contractors may just be out of date. Airtankers are seldom used outside the government so it is pretty much an exclusive market. Last year there 13 airtankers under contract which were operated by five contractors using 5 or 6 different models of aircraft. Maintaining and operating very small fleets of aircraft would seem difficult. CalFire follows a different process. Their aircraft certainly aren’t new, however they have a large fleet consisting of primarily one type of airtanker. I think makes operating the fleet much more efficient and effective. The Feds should identify the type and number of aircraft needed and then create a fleet of government owned airtankers. The fleet could be maintained and possibly even operated under contract. Currently, I suspect there may just be too many players involved.

  18. Does USFS aviation management suffer from Dunning-Kruger syndrome?

    Do good leaders know themselves and do they know what they don’t know, and, act and manage/lead accordingly?

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