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.

–Opinion–

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 that they can get away with stonewalling Congress and taxpayers. They 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 released the document. 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.

Two CWN large airtankers to be activated

An MD-87 and a 737

Tanker 101, an MD-87, at Jeffco
Tanker 101, an MD-87, at Jeffco, May, 2020; a sister ship to the one activated on CWN. Photo by @skippyscage

The Forest Service has activated two Call When Needed large air tankers for a 90-day Mandatory Availability Period.

Tanker 104 (an Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87) is scheduled to start today, May 30, and Tanker 137 (a Coulson B-737) will start June 1. Their administrative bases will be Porterville and McCall, respectively.

After these are on board, 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.

More details about the 36 firefighting helicopters awarded 90-day contracts

Korea Forest Service Air-Crane S-64
Ground and taxi test at the Medford airport October 21, 2019 for an Erickson Air-Crane purchased by the Korea Forest Service. Photo by Tim Crippin.

More details are trickling out about the 36 Type 1 and Type 2 helicopters that were awarded 90-day Exclusive Use (EU) contracts by the U.S. Forest Service in May, 2020. The agency is not releasing any information about the contracting of firefighting aircraft this Spring, but Fire Aviation has acquired documents that shed some light on the issue. Forest Service fire aviation contracts spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Below is the list that contains all  36 helicopter awards in one place.

helicopters contracts 90 day
Helicopters that received from the US Forest Service in May, 2020 guaranteed EU 90-day contracts — 24 Type 1 and 12 Type 2 helicopters. Information from the USFS.

The EU contracts for 24 Type 1 helicopters and 12 Type 2 helicopters are guaranteed for 90 days. These aircraft, based on the national Call When Needed agreement, are considered national aviation resources to be used for initial attack and large fire support. It will be possible to extend the contract period beyond 90 days depending on the national situation. The plan was for the helicopters to begin their Mandatory Availability Periods on June 1 or June 15.

In an internal memo, the Forest Service said the reason for the 90-day guaranteed contracts “…is part of an enhanced national response due to COVID-19 for the 2020 fire season.” But no doubt another reason has to be the fact that the previous four-year contract for Type 1 helicopters expired April 30, 2020. The new contract has been protested and it may not be adjudicated by the Government Accountability Office until September 8, 2020.

When the multi-year EU contracts for Type 1 helicopters were awarded earlier this month neither Erickson or Coulson appeared on the list. But on this 90-day contract, Coulson has six ships and Erickson has two. This could lead a person to believe that the Forest Service considers them to be officially classified as small businesses.

Protests for new helicopter and air tanker contracts may not be decided until July or September

Four companies filed protests with the GAO

Neptune's five BAe-146 air tankers
Five of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers in 2014. Neptune Aviation photo.

Two recent attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to award contracts for firefighting aircraft have been protested.

On March 26 the agency awarded exclusive use (EU) contracts for five Next Generation 3.0 large air tankers. Erickson Aero Air and Aero Flite were each selected for two awards and Coulson Aviation received one. This would have added five tankers to the 13 that are currently on Next Gen 1.0 and 2.0 EU contracts, to bring the total up to 18.

However Neptune Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier filed protests with the Government Accountability Office. Usually a protest prevents any contract awards from a solicitation. The due date for the GAO decision in this case is July 15, 2020. Neptune currently has four large air tankers on the existing contract while 10 Tanker has two.

The other protest was for 28 Type 1 helicopters, designed to tag on to the previous four-year contract that expired April 30, 2020. Both Billings Flying Service and Croman Corp. filed protests which are due to be decided by September 8, 2020.

In May, 2020 the Forest Service awarded guaranteed EU 90-day contracts for 24 Type 1 helicopters and 12 Type 2 helicopters. These aircraft, based on the national Call When Needed agreement, are considered national aviation resources to be used for initial attack and large fire support. It will be possible to extend the contract period beyond 90 days depending on the national situation. The plan was for the helicopters to begin their Mandatory Availability Periods on June 1 or June 15.

All of the contract awards for Next Generation EU air tankers since 2013 have been protested by companies that did not receive a contract. In each case the action delayed activation of the new contracts by months. If you are interested in a deep dive into these protests, check out our April, 2020 article, “Protests of air tanker contracts have been common.”

One of the four Alaska Department of Forestry employees hospitalized after airplane crash has been released

Aniak aircraft Crash
The wreckage of an Alaska Division of Forestry aircraft that crashed on takeoff at the Aniak, Alaska airport, May 28, 2020. Photo by David Mattson.

(This is updated information from the Alaska Department of Forestry about the aircraft crash that we earlier reported covered on May 28 and May 29.)


Three of the four Division of Forestry employees injured in a plane crash in the Western Alaska village of Aniak on Thursday are recovering in Anchorage hospitals today while the fourth has been treated and released.

The three individuals still hospitalized suffered serious but non-life threatening injuries and are in stable condition.

The pilot was identified as Mark Jordan, of Eagle River. The three emergency firefighters on board were identified as Albert Simon, of Hooper Bay; Craig Friday, of Hooper Bay; and Kelly Kehlenbach, of Aniak. The plane was en route from Aniak to McGrath, where the firefighters were to be outfitted for an assignment to support initial attack responses at the Kenai/Kodiak Area forestry station in Soldotna.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, which occurred shortly after the plane took off from the Aniak airport at approximately 4 p.m. The plane, a state-owned Aero Commander 500 Shrike, crashed into a pond in a gravel pit.

Aniak aircraft Crash
The wreckage of an Alaska Division of Forestry aircraft that crashed on takeoff at the Aniak, Alaska airport, May 28, 2020. Photo by David Mattson.

Some of the rescuers at the Alaska Department of Forestry plane crash were teenagers

All four victims had serious but not life-threatening injuries

Aero Commander Alaska Department of Forestry
An example of an aircraft similar to the Aero Commander that crashed May 28 near Aniak, Alaska. Photo by Fred Seggie.

The four Alaska Department of Forestry (DOF) employees that were in the aircraft that crashed near Aniak, Alaska May 28 were transported to medical facilities in Anchorage, about 320 miles east of Aniak. In a May 29 update the DOF said their injuries were serious but not life-threatening. The plane was transporting emergency firefighters from two western Alaska villages to Soldotna to support initial attack wildfire responses for the Kenai/Kodiak Area Forestry station.

(Other articles about this incident were posted on April 28 and April 30.)

Shortly after takeoff the twin-engine Aero Commander 500 Shrike crashed into a water-filled gravel pit about 2.5 miles west of the northwest end of the runway.

Among the first at the scene were three teenagers (who were later joined by a fourth), ranging in age from 13 to approximately 19, that were driving past the area and saw the aircraft in the water, but did not see or hear it crash.

As they drove closer and parked they saw two people exiting the aircraft.

Aniak aircraft Crash
The wreckage of an Alaska Division of Forestry aircraft that crashed on takeoff at the Aniak, Alaska airport, May 28, 2020. Photo by David Mattson.

Three of the four teens waded into the water that Dylan Nicholson, 13, told us over the phone was chest-high on his five-foot tall body. The water was shallow enough that the plane was resting on the bottom of the pond. While standing in the water that Dylan said was “very cold”, they worked to remove the remaining two people from the damaged plane. They could not get the door open at first, so they broke out a window to help extricate the last two individuals; eventually they were able to force the door open. The teens called emergency services for help and others arrived to assist. Some of the rescuers were in the water for about half an hour, according to one report.

At least one of the patients was taken to a clinic in the teen’s truck. Others that were more seriously injured were moved to the shore in a boat and then transported by ambulance to the clinic. Later they were all flown to Anchorage.

Dylan and his mom Mary Turner said the other three teens that were among the first to arrive at the scene were Trevor Morgan, Arthur Simeon, and Mason Dallnann. Others (and we are probably missing some) included Skye Morgan, Dakota Phillips, and Billy Turner (their ages unknown).

The rescuers and their families sent us these photos:

Alaska Department of Forestry plane crash rescuers
Dylan Nicholson
Alaska Department of Forestry plane crash rescuers
Dakota Phillips and Billy Turner
Alaska Department of Forestry plane crash rescuers
Arthur Simeon and Trevor Morgan stand in front of the truck that transported at least one of the injured persons.

Congratulations to these young people and the others that helped rescue the four victims of the crash. And we hope the four that were injured recover quickly.

Plane carrying firefighters crashes in Alaska

All four on board survive

Aniak aircraft Crash
The wreckage of an Alaska Division of Forestry aircraft that crashed on takeoff at the Aniak, Alaska airport, May 28, 2020. Photo by David Mattson.

The Alaska Division of Forestry reported that four of their employees survived a plane crash near the western Alaska village of Aniak today, May 28 at approximately 4 p.m.

(Click here to see an update on this incident, posted May 29, 2020, and here to see another posted May 30, 2020)

The DOF said the plane, owned by the DOF, crashed into the Kuskokwim River on takeoff. There were four people on board, including the pilot, and all four individuals suffered injuries. The seriousness of the injuries is unknown at this time.

Aniak aircraft Crash
The wreckage of an Alaska Division of Forestry aircraft that crashed on takeoff at the Aniak, Alaska airport, May 28, 2020. Photo by David Mattson.

Alaska State Troopers and local Emergency Services personnel responded to the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration have been notified.

The plane, an Aero Commander 500 Shrike, was transporting emergency firefighters from two western Alaska villages to Soldotna to support initial attack wildfire responses for the Kenai/Kodiak Area Forestry station.

David Mattson, who runs a shop near the runway, took these photos. He said the water at the site was shallow enough that personnel waded in and rescued the four individuals. He said the aircraft crashed into a gravel pit pond near the river about 2.5 miles west of the northwest end of the runway, rather than in the river as reported by the DOF. Another resident of Aniak confirmed the crash was in the gravel pit.

Aniak Airport
Aniak, Alaska Airport. Google Earth.

LA County Firehawk loses engine, makes precautionary landing

All four personnel onboard safely on the ground

LA County Firehawk helicopters
LA County Firehawk helicopters, photo by Bill Gabbert, Jan. 26, 2020.

It was first called an “emergency landing” by the Los Angeles County Fire Department, but was later downgraded to a “precautionary landing.”

LA County Firehawk helicopter Precautionary Landing