Forest Service releases Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness Report

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The AFUE study began in 2012

Tanker 02, a BAe-146, dropping on the Elephant Butte Fire
Tanker 02, a BAe-146, drops on the Elephant Butte Fire southwest of Denver, July 13, 2020. Photo by skippyscage.com.

In 2012 the U.S. Forest Service began a study in 2012 to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft in order to better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. Their stated objective was to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?”

After missing all of their self-imposed deadlines to release annual “detailed fire suppression aircraft use summaries” beginning in 2017, the Forest Service only released two “Fact Sheets” of one to two pages each in 2017 and 2019.

Yesterday the Forest Service released what they are calling the final report. The 46-page “Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Report” claims to provide “[A] first-of-its-kind baseline information gathering and analysis effort regarding when and why aviation resources are utilized in responding to wildfires while evaluating mission completion performance. This information will be used to inform future analyses on operational use and fleet investment decisions.”

Pressure to collect firefighting aircraft effectiveness data

report released by the Government Accountability Office in 2013 about air tankers pointed out some of the same issues in a 2009 audit by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General. Both reports emphasized that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior need to collect data about the effectiveness of air tankers and put together a coherent plan on the management of the fleet, as well as a plan for the acquisition and justification of additional aircraft.

In a 2019 Congressional hearing in which Forest Service personnel were asked about the delays in releasing the AFUE reports, it was explained that data was being collected by four “observation modules,” each comprised of three qualified firefighters and a dedicated aircraft, to collect ground and aerial data at wildfires throughout the nation during fire season. In addition to the 12 firefighters, 3 analysts/managers were tasked to evaluate the data. Christine Schuldheisz, a spokesperson for the USFS, has said the annual cost of the project is approximately $1,300,000.

In 2017 the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation — $507,000,000.

Objectives of the study

The Forest Service had the following goals for the AFUE when it began:

  • Determine the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job.
  • Determine the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet.
  • Track the performance of specific aircraft types.
  • Assess the influence of the operational missions that drops supported and environmental factors that influenced outcomes.

One of the guiding principles in the final report was, “Transparency: AFUE reports clearly identified study strengths and limitations, including potential sources of error and bias.”

The timing of the report’s release

We have been asking the Forest Service about the report regularly. Stanton Florea, Fire Communications Specialist for the agency, told us four days ago on August 17, “The AFUE study remains in the review process with the Office of Management and Budget.” The Forest Service released the report dated “March 2020” this week, in the middle of a very busy fire season while Colorado has several large fires and California is experiencing what may be one of the busiest periods of firefighting in the state’s recorded history, based on daily active fire acres.

What is in the report released yesterday?

I don’t have time to study the nuances of the report now, and neither do many of the people from whom I would like to solicit their analysis of the document. So we will save the detailed impressions for later. In the meantime, here a few details.

The report is highly technical and uses jargon apparently invented for the study, or at least used in very narrow, specific ways. Here is how they introduced two terms which are ubiquitous throughout the 42 pages:

  • “Interaction Percentage: For a variety of reasons, not every drop interacts with a fire; AFUE only evaluated effectiveness for drops that did interact with fire. IP quantifies the proportion of drops that did interact with fire. Many drops provide utility and insurance by increasing line width or to anchor burnout operations, but do not end up visibly interacting with the fire. IP is computed as the number of drops with known outcomes that interacted with the main fire divided by the total number of drops with known outcomes.
  • “Probability of Success: POS is computed as number of effective drops divided by the total number of drops with known and interacting outcomes. This measure can be calculated for any set of conditions to see how success likelihood can vary with factors such as drop objectives, aircraft type, and fire type.”

The study broke down firefighting aircraft into the following categories

  • Helicopter: Types 1, 2, and 3
  • Water scooping airtankers: single engine and multiengine
  • Airtankers: single engine, large, and very large

(Note: the U.S. Forest Service for some reason has always chosen to spell “air tanker” as one word. Yet, they abbreviate Large Airtanker with “LAT”, and Very Large Airtanker with “VLAT”)

Here are two of many graphics in the document.

Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study report
Figure 17 — AFUE sample interaction percentage (IP) and probability of success (POS) results by aircraft in initial attack, 2015 to 2018. The IP for each aircraft is the result of dividing the sample counts of interacting drops by total of interacting (effective plus ineffective) plus those with no fire interaction, in other words the proportion of drops interacting with the main fire to all drops with known outcomes. Bands indicate the range between the worst and best cases possible, assigning all unknown outcomes as no fire interacting or fire interaction. The POS for each aircraft is the result of dividing the sample counts of effective drops by the total of effective plus ineffective drops, in other words the proportion of effective to all interacting drops. Bands indicate the range between the worst and best cases possible, assigning all unknown outcomes as either ineffective or effective.
Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study report
Figure 19 — AFUE sample interaction percentage (IP) and probability of success (POS) results by aircraft in large fire, 2015 to 2018. The IP for each aircraft is the result of dividing the sample counts of interacting drops by total of interacting (effective plus ineffective) plus those with no fire interaction, in other words the proportion of drops interacting with the main fire to all drops with known outcomes. Bands indicate the range between the worst and best cases possible, assigning all unknown outcomes as no fire interacting or fire interaction. The POS for each aircraft is the result of dividing the sample counts of effective drops by the total of effective plus ineffective drops, in other words the proportion of effective to all interacting drops. Bands indicate the range between the worst and best cases possible, assigning all unknown outcomes as either ineffective or effective.

That was a very, very brief glance at a small part of the AFUE report. Let us know what you think.

Typos, let us know HERE. And, please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

11 thoughts on “Forest Service releases Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness Report”

  1. Seems like they [USFS ] is getting too technical ?
    Maybe they should hire another 10,000 employees to count and evluate IP droplets ? Additionally , the Single engine aircraft look a little better ,droplet -wise ;however volumetrically ,they are inefficient.

    1. Except that you aren’t taking into account the fact that a SEAT can be rapidly deployed, quickly re-deployed, get down at near treetop level and for those and other reasons are an optimal fast attack aircraft. When a call comes in from a ground crew, for emergency aerial support, unless they just happen to be lucky and in the right place with a LAT or VLAT overhead and capable of effectively deploying over them, SEAT’s are what they’re praying for. Well targeted, 800 gallons of retardant at a time, can be the difference between life and death.

      1. Each platform has there advantage. In almost 20 years of fire suppression, most on a IHC, I have never, nor will I ever rely on aircraft to keep me out of a life or death situation. A little overly dramatic.

      2. Life and death and the guys on the ground are praying for an indirect retardant load from a SEAT? Guess I missed something in the last 20 years of aerial firefighting…..

    2. No, they’re not inefficient. That’s dismissive and far from correct.

      SEATs come with their own mix rig and fuel and can be placed near the fire, and often are. They are twice in number that of large air tankers, and far less expensive. The cost per gallon delivered is dependent on several factors, not the least of which is the travel time to the fire.

      If a SEAT does an IA trip to a single tree and boxes it with 800 gallons, then the issue of how many hundreds of thousands of gallons might have been delivered, should the fire have become larger, becomes irrelevant, and the SEAT just became the most cost effective asset on the planet.

      Tools in the toolbox, but dismissiveness does not help. At a time when assets are stretched thin and planning level 5 has been reached in a number of locations, where no additional resources can be brought to bear, and fires are sharing aircraft, and requests go unfulfilled, it’s hardly an issue of volumetric efficiency. It’s more an issue presently of availability.

      What’s important on the fire are the firefighters on the ground on the line, supplying, planning, managing the fire. Aircraft are simply assets, tools for those on the ground, and we all know and understand that the firefighting takes place at the point of a shovel or Pulaski and dozer and McCleod. Those of us flying tankers are delivery drivers to support the wishes and needs of boots on the ground. I’ve flown SEATS and large air tankers, air attack, fire patrol, and spent a few years on the ground doing fire, too. I’ve made my share of mistakes, ineffective drops, and had my line burn through, miss, fall short, drift, hang, carry over, leave gaps, and other wise fail. In large tankers and in SEATs. I’ve also had considerable success in both in getting the retardant delivered effectively directly, indirectly, and have built miles and miles of line over several decades. Still a student.

      There are advantages and disadvantages to each platform, and dropping on fires remains an artform, not a science. It’s an imperfect one, but it is an asset for incident commanders and division commanders and fire crews and air attacks and leads to use, and tanker pilots in VLATS, Type 1 through Type IV, which includes SEATs, bring experience and perspective and judgement to the fire, and serve as integral team members in applying retardant, water, foam, direction, and even recommendations.

      Efficiency is more than just volume, but when it comes to efficiency, the value is not determined simply by the number of gallons on board.

  2. Too Technical! Without a doubt. Usually if a helicopter or air tanker does accomplish the results, the folks on the ground start howling. They are the “customer”. I am probably the most critical judge of aircraft and drop system. A new SEAT is on the horizon PAC 750, a copy of the Ayers Cargo Master which didn’t make it to market. The PAC 750 is advertised to carry 9000 pounds of payload. It also has room for probably six to eight smoke jumpers. Or in other words 6000 pounds of retardant and six jumpers. Something to think about.

    1. The 802 is a 16,000 lb airplane. Definitely won’t be carrying jumpers, but it was built to deliver retardant and chemicals, making it the only aircraft on the fire, other than the CL415, that was built for this mission.

      There was a tank conversion for the BT-67 (Basler DC-3), which was sold for overseas use, but It’s redundant; if the airplane is dropping retardant, it won’t be dropping jumpers, and there are already dedicated jump aircraft.

      The PAC750 is more like a Caravan.

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