Firefighters criticize closure of air tanker base at West Yellowstone

They said more retardant could have been applied during the Bridger Foothills Fire near Bozeman, Montana

100-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello
100-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello. The location of the Bridger Foothills Fire is identified. Wildfire Today map.

Two current or former firefighters were quoted in the Billings Gazette as asserting that the downgrading of the West Yellowstone Interagency Fire Center air tanker base in Montana to a Call When Needed base may have affected the amount of retardant applied on a recent fire near Bozeman, Montana.

200-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello
200-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello. The yellow circle is around West Yellowstone. USFS map.

Bridger Foothills Fire

The Bridger Foothills Fire that started September 4, 2020 northeast of Bozeman burned 8,224 acres and destroyed 28 homes. Three firefighters were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters September 5 when their safety became compromised by the spread of the fire. After the danger passed they moved to a safety zone and were later treated at Bozeman Health for “smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion” and then released.

West Yellowstone air tanker base

From the Billings Gazette, quoting a former smokejumper who had been based at West Yellowstone:

“The Bridger fire could have been staffed with more planes and twice the retardant dropped had West Yellowstone been used with the other bases,” said Tommy Roche, a retired wildland firefighter, in an email.

In addition to the former air tanker base at West Yellowstone, Montana, there are three other bases in that part of the country. Listed below are all four with their distances from the Bridger Foothills Fire.

  1. West Yellowstone, 73 miles
  2. Helena, 76 miles
  3. Billings, 118 miles
  4. Pocatello, 142 miles
gallons Retardant used at Air Tanker Bases
Retardant used at Air Tanker Bases in the Forest Service’s Northern Region, 2009-2018. (Screenshot from document supplied by the Custer National Forest, November 3, 2020; a letter signed by Shawna Legarza, Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service at the time)

Forest Service will not release the Conklin de Decker and Associates air tanker study

From the Billings Gazette:

A Freedom of Information Act request, filed more than a year ago by West Yellowstone airtanker base manager Billy Bennett, for the Forest Service’s airtanker study has not been fulfilled. “In my opinion, I do not believe the study exists!” Bennett wrote in an email. “No one admits to ever having seen it.”

According to documents provided to Fire Aviation by the Custer National Forest in Montana, in 2019 the Forest Service commissioned an independent analysis of next generation air tankers performance by Conklin de Decker and Associates (CdD).

We asked for a copy of the study today and were told by Forest Service Fire Communications Specialist Stanton Florea that it “…contains proprietary information. You would need to file a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act Request] with our national office.”

Forest Service did not release the RAND air tanker study

We were told the same thing after requesting and then filing a FOIA to obtain a copy of the $840,092 RAND air tanker study completed in 2012. The Forest Service refused to honor the FOIA, saying “…the report is proprietary and confidential RAND business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4.” Their refusal letter went on to say: “The data, analysis, and conclusion in this report are not accurate or complete” and that the USFS wanted “to protect against public confusion that might result from premature disclosure.”

RAND finally released it in 2012. Both air tanker studies were prepared at taxpayer expense.

The RAND study recommended that the U.S. Forest Service upgrade its airborne firefighting fleet to include more scooper air tankers. “Because scoopers cost less and can make multiple water drops per hour when water sources are nearby, we found that the most cost-effective firefighting fleet for the Forest Service will have more scoopers than air tankers for the prevention of large fires,” said Edward G. Keating, lead author of the study and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “However, air tankers are important in an ancillary role in initial attack for the minority of wildfires where water sources are not nearby, and possibly for fighting large fires as well.”

Performance of the BAe-146 at West Yellowstone

In a letter signed April 4, 2019 by Shawna Legarza, who at the time was the Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service, she wrote, “Based on CdD information, the BAe-146 [air tanker] will not be able to operate from West Yellowstone unless temperatures are below 69°F”, and included the table below. She also wrote, “Retardant will not be downloaded”, meaning the BAe-146 must always carry 3,000 gallons.

The performance of the BAe-146 at West Yellowstone is due to the elevation at the base, 6,640 feet above sea level. On a warm day the thin air results in a density altitude that makes it difficult for the aircraft to take off with a full load of retardant on the 8,400-foot runway.

CdC study, retardant loads at tanker bases Northern Region
Reportedly from the CdD study, retardant loads at tanker bases Northern Region. Supplied by the Custer National Forest.

The table indicates that there would be no restrictions for the C-130, C-130Q, RJ 85, and the MD-87 air tankers, but the BAe-146 tankers operated by Neptune Aviation would not be able to carry a full 3,000-gallon load of retardant under certain conditions. The BAe-146 and the RJ 85 are very similar, but the RJ 85s operated by Aero Flite have more efficient engines than the BAe-146.

Closing West Yellowstone air tanker base

The letter from Director Legarza included this:

Based on safety and efficiencies, Region 1 should consider whether any future investment into the West Yellowstone Airtanker Base is warranted. The airtanker bases in Billings and Helena, Montana, and Pocatello, Idaho are within 30 minutes flight time for a next generation airtanker and can maintain the airtanker response and capability needed for that portion of your geographic area. Additionally, a temporary airtanker base could be setup at the Bozeman, Montana airport if the fire situation in that portion of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming warranted a quicker response.

Forest Service begins to appreciate scooping air tankers

Another reason cited by the Forest Service for downgrading the West Yellowstone tanker base was the “increased use of scooper aircraft”, such as the CL-415 which can skim across a lake while scooping up to 1,600 gallons of water without having to return to an airport to reload with water or retardant. Historically the agency has been extremely reluctant to use scooping air tankers but four are currently under contract. For years they completely disregarded the RAND report’s recommendations about the efficiency of scoopers.

“The timing for the new scooper contract is this winter for the 2021 season and it is expected that Bridger Aerospace (based in Bozeman, MT) will have four turbine CL-215’s ready to bid which will add to the four CL-415’s on the current contract for a total of 8 nationally,” said Marna Daley, a Public Affairs Officer for the Custer National Forest in an email. “Regionally, Canadian scoopers are available and used through the agreement the Montana DNRC has with Canada.”

Bridger Aerospace is in the process of acquiring six old piston engine CL-215s that have been overhauled and upgraded with new turbine engines; they are designated as CL-415EAFs.

Tanker 281 Cedar Fire Nevada
Air Tanker 281, a CL-415EAF, completed over 60 water drops in support of firefighters at the Cedar Fire south of Elko Nevada on its first ever mission. Photo July 21, 2020 by K Mita, Bridger Aerospace.

West Yellowstone becomes a CWN base, dependent on portable retardant infrastructure

The West Yellowstone air tanker base is now classified by the Forest Service as a Call When Needed base. In the fall of 2019 the powder retardant was removed and the retardant mixing equipment was decommissioned according to documents supplied by the Forest Service. The base can now only be used to reload air tankers if a transportable retardant mixing plant is ordered and set up at the airport.

Forest Service’s evaluation of the use of air tankers at the Bridger Foothills Fire

In an email to Fire Aviation, Ms. Daley explained the agency’s opinion about the use of air tankers and the availability of the West Yellowstone tanker base during the Bridger Foothills Fire:

In terms of LATS (Large Air Tankers) and VLATs (Very Large Air Tankers) the Bridger Foothills Fire initial attack (day 1) and extended attack response (day 2 and day 3) was the most effective air resource response on the Custer Gallatin in 20 plus years.  There wasn’t a moment where suppression efforts were lacking a retardant response.  The ability of the Helena and Billings tanker bases to reload was unprecedented and fire managers were able to get full retardant loads on every tanker drop.  The transition of the West Yellowstone Tanker base to a call when needed base did not affect the outcome of the Bridger Foothills fire.  The base in West Yellowstone could have been opened under the Forest’s Call When Needed plan but that was not requested or needed because Helena and Billings bases were far more efficient.

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11 thoughts on “Firefighters criticize closure of air tanker base at West Yellowstone”

  1. Read the full article and it seems like an agenda is being pushed due the outcome of a single fire. Could be an issue if this was a recurring thing, but the Gallatin doesn’t burn that often. Also, hindsight is 20/20.

    1. “but the Gallatin doesn’t burn that often.”

      Didn’t used to.
      The Willamette didn’t used to either, but the west side of the Cascades really ripped this year.

  2. I’m sorry but the performance issues are not entirely true. I know 3000 gal has been carried out of West. More than once. To say that the RJ can always carry 3000 out of WY is also not true. When temps there bump into the 80’s both planes will have to have min fuel and fuel every single time to carry 3000. Both planes stink to be sure , but WO management is filled w non firefighters or old timers, who don’t know what the boots need.
    If a tanker out of WY can show up w 26-2800 gal more times than out of another base, isn’t that a good thing. So short sighted. Per usual!

  3. I’m curious now if all air tanker loading bases have air tankers stationed there as well? In other words, are there air bases out there standing by with crews and equipment ready to fill air tankers just in case an airplane stops by? The article mentioned the West Yellowstone base did not pump any retardant 3 of the last 10 years so it sounds like they are trying to reallocate resources to higher priorities.

    1. Jim to answer your question. Yes there are bases with no tankers at them with crews ready to load if a tanker stops by. Most full service bases (Such as Fresno, Santa Maria, Mesa, Cedar City, Pocatello, Medford, Rapid City, and Moses Lake) have both government personnel and contracted loading crew through the mandatory availability period as spelled out in the national retardant contract. These bases are staffed 7 days a week 9 AM to 6 PM. Then there is what is called Bulk bases (Porterville, Klamath Falls, La Grande, Missoula, Jeffco, and West Yellowstone) and that is where government personnel mix and load the retardant as well as all other duties that come with tanker base operations. During fire season these bases are also staffed 7 days a week from 9 AM to 6 PM.

      1. Thank you for that, M — clear and concise and helpful.
        There are other little bases such as John Day, with a rappel crew and a helicopter and a SEAT base. No idea how many of those are scattered about.

  4. We treat our Government(tax payer money) like a welfare state dolling out money not where it’s most effective but where mouths need to be fed. If this was a private corporation decision it’d be a no brainer by which “bang for your buck”, or return on investment, rules the day. Yes there is gallons per hour and $/acre burned calculations but at the end of the day a shift toward larger faster LATs makes these decisions inevitable. If the MO was towards more SEATS then we would be seeing an expansion of primary bases, and likely CWN bases that can be rapidly activate, but we can’t have the best of both worlds when practical fiscal responsibility (I am sure that has never been claimed on this site and rightly so) is required. Globally we are moving away from close in rapid initial attack ie a SEAT behind every tree, to fewer AC with larger capacity that may or mayn’t(my new favourite word) deliver more suppressant and be willing to give ground initially in exchange for more capacity over the long run. I don’t agree, for the record, and think that mainly a robust and efficient dispatch system utilising SEATs and skimmers supported by LATs is a better model for initial attack success. But I don’t pay the bills either. End of rant. Sorry.

    1. The question you bring up is important: is the priority fiscally responsibility (and exactly what does that mean) or effective fire fighting?

      1. It’s not one or the other. They have to both exist or neither will be achieved. Spend to little and fires get big. Spend too much and agencies go broke and make airplanes go bye bye. I suppose the most successful(spend appropriately and effectively fight fire) agencies are the ones that respond on initial attack with the proper assets, scale up and down rapidly aka know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em, and so on. The best I’ve been involved with has a short line between ground and air attack where the ground IC makes one radio call to their regional dispatch, they then place that request for air assets onto a web based tracking system and then that’s acknowledged and filled by the Air Assets dispatchers. If the aircraft weren’t sent on initial detection simultaneously to ground crew(depending on predicted burning conditions, interface probability etc this can be 100% of the time to seldom but I’d say roughly 50% and they seldom underachieve response) then allow about 10 minute from ICs first radio call to Air Tanker dispatch text/email/phone call. It’s a robust system that’s continuously critiqued and modified and subjected to both Government bean counters and ground crew. Both of which are generally satisfied. I’d say that would fit the bill.

  5. Everyone respectively has a different outlook regardless of the topic. The agenda for the West Yellowstone tanker base is to remain open and protect the Gallatin area, The Town of West Yellowstone, Big Sky and our nation’s First National Park. It has been battling this issue for several years and is definitely not over a single incident. Wildfires are the only natural disaster that is attempted to be manipulated by humans. We cannot afford to say an area does not burn that often to make the decision to close bases. It only takes one time for fire to be right and for us to be wrong to pay the ultimate price.
    They are neuromas studies compiled to make strategic decisions. (Examples) from 3rd party performance factors, product and effective use, cost and proficiency and location and facilities etc. to be factored into a strategic assessment. The PIC serves as a there on SOF due to them having the ultimate say in Go or No Go for every mission of their career regardless of other assessments.
    Studies have been conducted for several years with tons of data collected and lengthy reports to read. In the end its still simple math. A download of 609 gallons. Equates to less than a third of an acre at a coverage level 4. And one tenth of an acre at a coverage level 6. Very small and unnoticeable difference to any firefighter on the ground observing a single retardant drop. With all things being equal, downloads form West Yellowstone with reduced flight times/distance than other bases can yield up to 9000 gallons more delivered to the Fireline in a single operational period. That equates to 5.16 acres, or 1/2-mile of retardant line at a coverage level 4. And 3.44 acres, or 1/4_mile of retardant line at a coverage level 6. Big difference at the end of the day to the firefighter on the ground.
    The tanker base operates at minimal expense due to years of cross-training efforts with the tanker base manager, smokejumpers, etc. This in turn creates a much safer and standardized environment when multiple aircraft are moving on the ramp. If more staffing is needed, assistance has been utilized form other areas of the country that have finished their season and are able to assists others like every base in the nation to maintain minimum staffing.
    An extensive amount of work has been completed to the ramp area to accommodate airtankers for many years to come. All equipment is government owned (forced account) this alone has an astronomical cost savings for this type location when not engaged in airtanker operations. Fuel is readily available without interruption due light activity of commercial and general aviation at the airport.
    (Examples) in 2015 the surrounding bases that are mentioned had poor visibility due to smoke conditions and aircraft was unable to take loads from those facilities. The West Yellowstone base was able to recover aircraft for reload/fuel to maintain operations for firefighters in the field. (Second) When other bases are heavily tasked with multiple aircraft. West Yellowstone serves as overflow base that can manage LAT’S and SEATs in a safe and proficient manor. The concept of less is more does not make for a good mix in the aviation world. One thing that we must not lose sight of, is working together for the common goal. Safely Preform and Proficiently Protect.

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