Opinion: how to best utilize the aerial firefighting fleet

Tanker 892 single engine air tanker wildfire
Tanker 892, a SEAT, drops near the Aldrich Lookout Tower on the Sunflower Fire in Grant County, Oregon in 2014. Photo by Todd McKinley.

The following opinion article was sent to us by U.S. Forest Service retiree Bill Derr. He said it was written by him in consultation with personnel involved in aerial firefighting, retirees, aerial firefighting industry people, and some Forest Service employees both retired and presently working for the agency. Mr. Derr said “it reflects the collective views of knowledgeable people engaged in wildfire suppression”.


It’s time to finally get serious about how to best utilize our aerial firefighting fleet

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Aerial firefighting strategies and aircraft mobilization tactics must be revisited given the intensifying threat of US wildfires and mounting pressure to do so with limited additional funding. Existing models were built for a different time and have not kept pace with how much the wildfire fighting environment has changed for the worse. It is not lost on anyone who has been in the industry for more than a few years that getting on a fire faster, even with small amounts of water, water enhancer or retardant, significantly reduces the possibility of that fire start becoming national news. In the face of the 2020 wildfire season and the complications presented by managing it in a COVID‐19 operating environment, keeping small fires small, for as long as possible, will be a key success factor in limiting both the spread of the virus and number of large fires.

Fire agencies need to use the nation’s aerial firefighting assets in a manner that produces the best possible outcomes for our citizens and our ground‐based wildland fire fighters. The strategy is simple: lead the battle through the pre‐positioning of the numerous (~200) smaller, significantly less costly Special Operations assets such as wheeled SEATs, Fire Bosses and Type 3 helicopters and if the during the battle these assets look to be needing more support, send in the less numerous (~35) and more costly VLATs/LATs to ensure the fire is contained. This strategy would optimize the usage and effectiveness of the country’s entire aerial firefighting force and provide Incident Commanders the appropriate time required to request and receive the LATs and VLATs if needed.

Initial response and direct air strategies that utilize the large number of less costly smaller aircraft built to conduct rapid initial attack on the front lines – ideally in combination with smokejumpers, and often ahead of, ground fire suppression equipment and personnel – can better contain fires and keep them small. This provides the ground crews an advantage in putting out blazes more efficiently, helping to limit wildfire devastation and the ever‐increasing associated costs for fire suppression, and freeing up valuable funds for the federal and state restoration and forest management work that helps prevent catastrophic fires in the first place.

THE 2009 FLAME ACT – WE HAVE BEEN THINKING ABOUT THIS FOR SOME TIME – NOW WE NEED TO MAKE THE EFFORT TO LIVE UP TO THE GOALS SET FORTH YEARS AGO
Improving the safety and effectiveness of wildfire response is the highest priority set forth by the US Departments of Interior and Agriculture in the 2014 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy1 (National Strategy), commissioned by Congress as part of the 2009 FLAME act2. This strategic priority includes “enhancing wildfire response preparedness with an emphasis on both structural protection and wildfire prevention to maximize the effectiveness of initial response.” The second priority aims to restore our nation’s landscapes through vegetation and fuels management. General guidance in this area includes “designing and prioritizing fuel treatments; strategically placing fuel treatments; increasing use of wildland fire for meeting resource objectives; and continuing and expanding the use of all methods to improve the resiliency of our forests and rangelands.” The final priority involves “engaging homeowners and communities in creating fire adapted communities where populations and infrastructure can withstand fire without loss of property.” To move the needle toward achieving National Strategy goals, the way we wildfire response tactics must be reevaluated to improve effectiveness and rein in costs. By doing so, we can ensure that programs to restore and maintain US landscapes are positioned (and funded) to succeed.

A CHANGE IN THE AIR
The first pillar of the National Strategy—improving the safety and effectiveness of wildfire response—is more important than ever as blazes burn larger and dangerously hot over the course of a longer season. One area of wildfire response that is primed for increased effectiveness is the use of aerial firefighting.

For decades now, the use of firefighting aircraft has been central to wildfire response programs. However, as the decades have passed by, traditional aerial firefighting strategies have remained mostly unchanged despite the shifting fire environment and the introduction of new aircraft, technologies and tactics. To increase response effectiveness, it is time for these strategies to be revisited.

The yet to be published USFS Aerial Firefighting Usage and Effectiveness Study (AFUES), initiated in 2012, will likely produce a result that is already obvious to most wildland firefighters: the probability of succeeding in battling a wildfire and living to see another day is significantly increased when you start working a fire start within the first hour. The problem of that being the outcome of the study is that there aren’t enough LATs/VLATs and Type 1 and 2 helicopters in the currently contracted USFS fleet to ever achieve that goal and little or no additional funding to make it happen. These agencies need to find a way to do more with same amount of limited funding. What this paper proposes is a way to do so.

Fortunately, an entire fleet of smaller fixed‐wing and rotary assets do exist to achieve this goal. Our state and federal fire agencies, primarily driven by the USFS, need to rethink the integration of these smaller, easily and cost effectively distributed assets into their response to wildfire starts. A multimillion dollar study that has not been completed in well over 8 years is not needed for most fire fighters who have been in the industry over the last two to three decades. Let’s start demanding a change in how we use these costly assets. It will result in better outcomes for every citizen in a fire prone region (less devastation and healthcare impact) and significantly reduce the risk and danger posed to our wildland firefighting brothers and sisters that results from long drawn out campaign fires.

Aerial firefighting through initial response to wildfires
It is well known that aerial firefighting is most effective through initial attack on small wildfires3. During initial attack, small, prepositioned initial attack fixed wing aircraft and helicopters can arrive on a scene within minutes, carrying loads of water or retardant that can help contain a situation until ground crews arrive to put it out. If smokejumpers are available in the area, the probability of success increases substantially. Each time a small wildfire is suppressed during initial response, agencies prevent greater devastation and millions more in associated costs that come with large and very large fires4. In fact, a USDA Audit Report found that when success rate of USFS initial response dropped by 1.5% in 2007, it represented an estimated 150 more fires that escaped containment and cost the Forest Service an additional $300 million to $450 million to suppress5. By avoiding decreases like this and instead improving the success rate of initial attack, the USFS could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in savings that could be used to fund critical fuels management tactics like forest thinning and prescribed burns. The full benefits of reliable and successful initial attack are realized when small wildfires are quickly suppressed and the resulting budget savings are funneled into programs that help restore ecological balance to our forests and better protect against megafires for years and decades to come.

Additionally, there are public health benefits to extinguishing fires through initial attack. A lower amount of smoke is released into the air, which in past wildfire situations has affected the health of thousands of people in communities across the US. Fewer harmful carbons are emitted, which research shows can have a lasting impact on climate change—severe wildfire seasons such as 2015, 2017 and 2018 have the potential to release a decade’s worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere in just a single season6. The degradation of water quality is also reduced when a wildfire is suppressed quickly, as each large wildfire increases susceptibility of watersheds to flooding and erosion which can have short and long‐term impacts on water supplies, such as increased treatment costs, need for alternative supplies, and diminished reservoir capacity7. These public health benefits underscore the importance of the National Strategy’s first priority, “to maximize the effectiveness of initial response” so wildfires can be suppressed and extinguished while they’re still small.

More specifically regarding public health, the 2020 season is going to be an even greater challenge than any other previous season as a result of the COVID‐19 pandemic. Fire agencies will be focused on reducing the number and size of fire camps this coming season due to the potential of infection across a larger portion of a camp. They will also be trying to minimize the number of evacuations that result in citizens needing to shelter for protection in local gyms and auditoriums. To achieve these goals, fire agencies will need to provide as much aerial firefighting force as possible, as quickly as possible.8

However, the reality is that the current aerial firefighting models are not optimized to execute the swift, reliable initial response needed to control fires that are burning and spreading more quickly today due to climate change and unhealthy landscapes. Rather, firefighting aircraft are more often deployed when a fire has already escaped containment and grown into a larger, more expensive disaster. When this happens, typically large and very large air tankers (LATs and VLATs) are used to initiate an indirect attack. Over the course of the indirect attack, LATs and VLATs complete numerous drops of retardant to contain the blaze. Turnaround time between drops often exceeds one to two hours for LATs and VLATs due to the time‐intensive procedures required for loading high volumes of retardants. Turnaround time may also be impacted by basing requirements, as large aircraft must operate out of large airports with retardant loading infrastructure (only ~60 of those west of the Mississippi), as opposed to smaller, regional bases (1,000s of these) that are often closer to fire prone areas. As with all aircraft, turnaround time contributes to the overall length of a wildfire mission, which in turn increases aircraft operating costs. In some situations, incident managers have tried to ameliorate long turnaround times by “filling the gap” with an additional LAT or VLAT to help paint more lines around a fire. Doing so essentially doubles the cost of a suppression mission.

When a small fire does break initial containment efforts, LATs and VLATs play a critical role in suppression, but at a high cost. Significant acquisition and retrofitting costs, plus on‐going maintenance requirements, naturally limits the number of LATs and VLATs that can be made available. There just aren’t that many of these aircraft to meet the supply of fire starts. For example, for the 2020 season, the US Forest Service will have only 18 exclusive use (EU) LAT/VLAT contracts and 17 call‐when‐needed (CWN) contracts for aircraft of the same size9. With such a small number of large aircraft operating from a limited number of bases that have the extensive retardant loading infrastructure, LATs and VLATs cannot be as widely distributed and numerous as smaller, less expensive aircraft across a fire‐prone region. Given the broadening geographic areas requiring potential fire suppression, and the limited number of LATs and VLATs available, there is simply too much ground to cover to ensure a swift, reliable initial attack. This structural challenge for large aircraft, combined with higher operating costs, makes LATs and VLATs primarily, if not solely, suited for indirect attack on large fires, or as suggested in this document, supplemental back‐up to the aerial initial attack efforts. While this type of response will continue to have a highly effective and important role in fighting big blazes, public entities must bolster rapid initial attack capability in order to quickly respond to and contain fire starts in the WUI when they are still small. Otherwise, small wildfires will continue to become large public health disasters that require millions of dollars to suppress and cost the country billions of dollars in devastation and rebuilding.

A NEW PATH FORWARD
Most wildfires start as small, containable situations. But when a spark occurs in today’s shifting environment, a rapid, direct and reliable initial response is needed in order to avoid a large, multimillion‐ dollar disaster. By bolstering their initial attack capabilities with purpose‐built firefighting aircraft, fire agencies can knock down fires more quickly, keep them cooler and better support crews on the ground that are putting out the flames. If the same fire agencies could rely on smokejumpers as much as they used to decades ago, the initial attack combo of timely aerial initial attacks assets and supporting smokejumpers on the ground would have outstanding results. Given the large number of wheeled SEATs, Fire Bosses and Type 3 helicopters in the U.S., fire agencies should lead any fire response, regardless of who’s land it has started on, with these aircraft to slow and cool the fire until ground resources arrive. Through leading the initial attack with these aircraft, when a fire start does break the containment efforts of initial attack, these agencies can utilize the scarcer and costly LATs and VLATs to bolster the fight only when they’re needed. This approach makes common sense, fire sense and dollars and cents. Doing so helps divert the large wildfires that are predicted to increase in frequency over the coming years and decades. Key to the success of this model is using money saved from reduced suppression costs to fund forest health programs like forest thinning and prescribed burns that reduce the enormous “inventory” of fuels on the ground that require mitigation efforts.

Prioritize the use of rapid initial attack aircraft
During initial response to a wildfire start, every minute counts. Small, pre‐positioned initial attack aircraft are needed for their ability to quickly get off the ground, arrive at a scene and nimbly maneuver around fire’s frontline to drop continuous loads of water or retardant as soon as possible. These aircraft can quickly reload in between drops, returning to small, regional airports to reload, or scooping directly from a water source nearby the fire situation (Fire Bosses and helicopters). These capabilities combine to support a rapid, reliable initial response to fire starts and small wildfires. Only a handful of initial attack aircraft are in large enough number to provide the necessary capabilities across a broad enough swath of the fire prone landscape during the fire season. They are:

  • Helicopters. Smaller, typically Type 3 helicopters can take off and be en route to a fire in a matter of minutes, making them an effective complement to aerial firefighting arsenals. Helicopters have the advantage of dropping water, water enhancers or retardant based on the situation at hand and can reload from small water sources or staged tanks that can be positioned very close to a fire. The disadvantage of helicopters is load size. Oftentimes a Type 3 helicopter can only carry a bucket that holds 150 to 300 gallons. Even so, these helicopters when deployed in larger numbers can be effective initial responders to a wildfire. Best estimates put the number of these assets in the 100 or so range.
  • Single engine air tankers (SEATs). Like, Type 3 helicopters, SEATs can take off and be en route to a fire situation faster than larger aircraft, a critical capability for successful initial response. Based on the situation at hand, SEATs can carry loads of water, water enhancers or retardant to drop on hot spots and help control and cool the fire situation until ground crews can arrive. Wheeled SEATs carry loads of about 800 gallons which allow for “surgical” drops on a fire, enabling the aircraft to work closer and more safely with ground crews. Wheeled SEATs can operate out of smaller, regional air bases that are often closer to fires in the WUI, cutting down on turnaround time. Based on the historical number of wheeled SEATs that the BLM has contracted with over the years, there are roughly 60 to 75 of these aircraft outfitted to fight fire.
  • Fire Bosses. When equipped with amphibious floats, a wheeled SEAT becomes an 800‐gallon scooping air tanker. When near a water source, an aircraft like the Fire Boss can perform continuous scoops and drops on a fire for 3.5 hours straight – without needing to return to a base to reload during this time. This platform combines the best attributes of helicopters, wheeled SEATs and LATs/VLATs derived from its ability to be contracted cost effectively, be positioned close to fire‐prone areas for fast response and drop as much suppressant volume on a fire in a given hour as any LAT /VLAT. Given that most human settlement is near water, and at least two‐thirds of historical fires in the US have been within ten miles of a scooper‐accessible water source10, there is undeniable value to adding Fire Bosses to firefighting arsenals. There will be 19 Fire Bosses available for the 2020 wildfire season.

Smaller, less costly fixed‐wing and rotary assets enable a widely distributed basing strategy in anticipation of dispersed fire starts. SEATs, whether wheeled or on floats like on a Fire Boss, and Type 3 helicopters are much less expensive to contract and operate than LATs/VLATs and Type 1 and 2 helicopters, allowing departments to deploy more aircraft and create “nodes” of resources in fire prone areas. With more nodes of aircraft in more flexible and more fire prone locations, these assets can dramatically improve the speed, effectiveness and reliability of initial response and extended operations throughout a fire‐prone region. With almost 200 of these types of aircraft ready to go, why aren’t we using these aircraft as the Special Operations assets that they are and backing them up with the power and might of the 35 LATs/VLATs available?

IN SUMMARY
Climate change, expansion of the WUI and today’s unhealthy landscapes are combining to create costlier fires that are burning and spreading much more quickly than they did 20‐30 years ago. In the face of this new world order, public entities must bolster rapid and direct initial air attack capability by incorporating a network of numerous smaller, lower cost, initial‐attack aircraft into aerial firefighting arsenals. Doing so will prepare agencies, and the country, to rapidly respond to and contain fire situations in the WUI before small blazes escape and become multi‐acre, multi‐million‐dollar devastations. Only then can we return critical funds to forest management programs that reduce the fuels accumulating in our wildlands and restore the vitality of our nation’s forests.


1 Jewell, Sally, and Thomas J. Vilsack. The National Strategy ‐ The Final Phase in the Development of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. PDF. Washington D.C.: U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture, April 2014.

2 Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (2009) (enacted).

3 Aerial Firefighting Tutorial.” AHSAFA.org (web log). Accessed February 2018.

4 Keating, Edward G., Andrew R. Morral, Carter C. Price, Dulani Woods, Daniel M. Norton, Christina Panis, Evan Saltzman, and Ricardo Sanchez. “Air Attack Against Wildfires. Report. RAND Corporation.

5 H.R. Rep. No. 08601‐53‐SF (2009).

6 Struzik, Edward. Firestorm. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

7 Smith, Hugh G., Gary J. Sheridan, Patrick N.j. Lane, Petter Nyman, and Shane Haydon. “Wildfire effects on water quality in forest catchments: A review with implications for water supply.” Journal of Hydrology 396, no. 1‐2 (2011): 170‐92. Accessed March 14, 2018. doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2010.10.043.

8 Gabbert, Bill. “Fighting Wildfires During a Pandemic” Fire Aviation (blog), March 19, 2020. Accessed March 25, 2020. 

9 Gabbert, Bill. “Forest Service awards contracts for five exclusive use air tankers” Fire Aviation (blog), March 26, 2020. Accessed March 26, 2020.

10 Keating, Edward G., Andrew R. Morral, Carter C. Price, Dulani Woods, Daniel M. Norton, Christina Panis, Evan Saltzman, and Ricardo Sanchez. “Air Attack Against Wildfires. Report. RAND Corporation.

Forest Service awards contracts for five exclusive use air tankers

Next-Generation 3.0 contract

air Tanker 163 an RJ85
Aero Flite’s Tanker 163, an RJ85, at Rapid City December 2, 2017 while working the Legion Lake Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Today the U.S. Forest Service announced contract awards for five large exclusive (EU) use air tankers. Three companies received contracts — Erickson Aero Tanker for two tankers, Aero Flite for two, and Coulson for one.

The tankers operated by the companies include MD-87s by Erickson Aero Tanker and RJ85s by Aero Flite. Coulson flies C-130s and B737s but this contract is for Tanker 137, a B737. The estimated total value of the contracts are, Erickson Aero Tanker $70.5 M, Aero Flite $80.4 M, and Coulson $41.5 M.

The solicitation for the Next Generation 3.0 air tankers was first posted 494 days ago on November 19, 2018. There are approximately three seasons left for the six aircraft on the Next Gen 1.0 contract, so the Forest Service should begin today working on Next Gen 4.0.

These 5 large EU air tankers will be added to the existing fleet of 13 (see the chart below published March 11), to bring the total up to 18. Earlier the Forest Service said they would have “up to 18” on EU contract this year. There are 17 large air tankers left on call when needed (CWN) contracts that can be activated, but at hourly and daily rates much higher than those on EU. At the time of the CWN award in December some of those tankers only existed on paper.

Schedule large air tankers on USFS exclusive use contracts 2020
Schedule for large air tankers that are on USFS exclusive use contracts, updated March 11, 2020 by USFS.

Since 2013 the number of large air tankers on Forest Service EU contracts at the beginning of each fire season varied from 9 in 2013 to 21 in 2016 and 2017. From 2000 to 2002 there were 40 to 44.

Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019. Revised 2-24-2020. Fire Aviation.
air tankers Durango MD87
Erickson Aero Air’s T101 and T103, MD87s, at Durango, CO May 28, 2018. Photo by Dave Herdman.
coulson 737 air tanker dropping
Coulson 737 air tanker.

Schedule released for large air tankers

Only 13 are on exclusive use U.S. Forest Service contracts

Schedule large air tankers on USFS exclusive use contracts 2020
Schedule for large air tankers that are on USFS exclusive use contracts, updated March 11, 2020 by USFS.

The U.S. Forest Service has released a days off schedule for the 13 large air tankers that are under exclusive use contracts as we begin to move into the 2020 wildfire season.

The contracts and companies supplying the aircraft are the same as last year but the schedule confirms the administrative bases and the days off. The locations do not mean the air tanker will spend a certain amount of time at that base. Only one of the 13 tankers is identified on the list, Tanker 101, an Aero Air MD-87 with an administrative base at Medford, Oregon that began its Mandatory Availability Period March 12.

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

There are so few large airtankers on exclusive use contracts that dispatchers have to guess where fires will erupt and move the aircraft around, like whack-a-mole. None of the tankers this year will be staffed seven days a week, and the DC-10s will have two days off each week. In 2019, 20 percent of the requests for large air tankers were unfilled during a year in which the number of acres burned in the lower 48-states was the least since 2004.

2019 US acres burned wildfires
2019 US acres burned, except Alaska. Stats by NICC. Numbers prior to 1983 may not be reliable. Processed by Wildfire Today.

The hourly and daily rates were redacted on the document that the Forest Service released. On the image at the top of the article I cropped off those blank columns to make the remaining information that was not censored more readable.

The Next-Generation 3.0 exclusive use air tanker solicitation that was first published November 19, 2018 has still not been awarded.

New Call When Needed contracts for large air tankers were awarded in December, 2019.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Robert. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

How much does it cost to drop retardant on a fire?

We calculated the cost per delivered gallon

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Tanker 12, a BAe-146, drops on the Cave Fire Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy article about exclusive use Next Generation 3.0 air tanker contracts, the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study, air tanker availability since 2000, and the contracts that were awarded recently for Call When Needed (CWN) large and very large air tankers.

Today I added some calculated data to that article about the cost per delivered gallon from the CWN air tankers. In an effort to ensure this additional information does not get lost, I am including it again here.

Keep in mind the costs only apply to CWN air tankers which can be more than 50 percent higher than an exclusive use air tanker that is guaranteed several months of work. The initial dollar figures supplied by the Forest Service are based on the contracts that were awarded in December, 2019.

The U.S. Forest Service refused to give us the actual daily and hourly costs that the government agreed to when issuing the new CWN contracts to the six companies, but did supply the chart below with estimates based on the contract costs. The data assume the tankers were activated 36 days a year, for 4 years, and flew 100  hours each year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold up to 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were, 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS CWN contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and including fuel but not the costs of retardant, are:

Retardant Cost Delivered Gallon CWN

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant carried varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. The cost of retardant would add several dollars per gallon.

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

Statistics for the use of air tankers, 2000 through 2019

And, more details about the new Call When Needed contracts

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

(Updated Feb. 24, 2020)

This chart shows data from 2000 through 2019 for the number of large air tankers (LAT) on U.S. Forest Service Exclusive Use (EU) Contracts, the number of times each year large air tankers were requested by firefighters on a wildfire, and the percentage of requests that were not filled (Unable to Fill, UTF). 

New Call When Needed contracts

More information is now available about the Large Air Tanker Call When Needed (CWN) contracts that were awarded in December, 2019. Six companies have a total of 36 aircraft on the list, a number of aircraft that is one more than first announced.

The costs below are estimates provided by the Forest Service for one aircraft  based on the contracts awarded. Kaari Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service who sent us the information, told us that the estimates assume 36 days a year, for 4 years, and 100 flight hours a year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold approximately 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

Update February 13, 2020. With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above, it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and not including the costs of retardant, are: 
$7.00:  MD-87
$8.50:  BAe-146, C-130, & 737
$10.00: RJ85
$4.50:  DC-10
$3.00:  747

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. 

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2007 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

The CWN contract was awarded 555 days after the process began May 30, 2018 —  the exact amount of time it took to award the first Next-Generation EU air tanker contracts,  Version 1.0, in 2013.

Exclusive Use Next Generation 3.0 contracts

And speaking of long time frames, it has been 450 days since the Forest Service published the solicitation for the third round of EU Next Gen air tankers, Ver. 3.0, on November 19, 2018. Bids were required 12 months ago. Ms. Carpenter told us today that the FS expects it to be awarded in “early March, 2020.”

Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study

The Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study began approximately 2,812 days ago in 2012 and to date no substantive results have been released, other than a two-page “fact sheet”.  Senator Lisa Murkowski asked about the study during a Congressional hearing April 9, 2019 and FS Chief Vicki Christiansen told her a report would be released “soon”. Ms. Carpenter told us today it would be released in the Spring of this year, 2020.

In the hearing 10 months ago Colorado Senator Cory Gardner referred to the study, saying in his rapid-fire speaking style: “There is a technical term I want to use to describe the length of time it is taking to get that study done, and it is bunk! I’m sorry, it’s just a bunch of bunk that it has taken seven years to get this done. We fought a world war in four years, we built the Pentagon in 16 months, we can’t do a study in 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 4 years, maybe 5 years? It has taken seven years to do this? In the meantime we have western states that have had significant and catastrophic fires. I understand it’s important to get the information right. But doggonnit, someone needs to get a fire lit underneath them to get something done on this study.”

When asked if firefighting aircraft were worth the cost and if they were effective, the answers from land management agencies have often been, “Yes”.

How do you know?

“We just do”. (I’m paraphrasing here).

The study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires. Theoretically this would better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. In FY 2017 for example, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If completed and the results implemented, the 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 tools for the job.

Last year one person familiar with the issue told me that they thought the actual, accurate data from the AFUE would never be released — like the situation with the RAND air tanker study that the Forest Service never released even after our Freedom of Information Act request. Two years after it was completed RAND released the document.

Australian government increases aerial firefighting funding by 57%

Three Mile Fire at Wisemans's Ferry
Screenshot from video shot by an aircraft over the Three Mile Fire at Wisemans’s Ferry in New South Wales. NSW RFS photo December 3, 2019.

The federal government of Australia is committing an additional $11 million to beef up the nation’s aerial firefighting capability. The extra funding will supplement the $14.9 million existing budget to bring the total up to nearly $26 million. The southern hemisphere has just entered their summer, but Australia has been experiencing an extremely high level of wildfire activity for at least a month. The one large air tanker that the government owned, a 737 purchased last Spring, was busy off and on for much of the winter assisting firefighters on the ground.

Tanker 138 737 New South Wales
Tanker 138, a 737, in New South Wales, August 8, 2019 U.S. time. Coulson Photo.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) will be able to decide how to spend the money, which will be sent to the organization as a grant immediately.

The NAFC had originally planned to contract for five large air tankers brought in from North America, but after numerous fires and severe criticism from former fire chiefs, they hired two more, with one of them being a DC-10 very large air tanker.

Australia's large and very large air tanker fleet
Australia’s fleet of large and very large air tankers, updated November 13, 2019 after adding two additional air tankers. The dates are DD/MM. Information confirmed by NAFC.

Before the infusion of the additional funds, Australia had 63 fixed wing and 45 rotor wing aircraft devoted to fire suppression. There are an additional 51 aircraft used for other fire-related missions.

The minister for natural disasters, David Littleproud, said the additional funding would allow lease periods of firefighting aircraft to be extended.

“It is clear we are facing longer and more intense seasons, and as this summer has only just begun we have already seen devastating fires tear through communities right across the country,” Littleproud said.

“Sadly, bushfires are part of the Australian landscape and while we cannot always prevent them, we can prepare for them and ensure that we are responding in the most effective way.”

Forest Service to sign 35 air tankers on Call When Needed agreements

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Tanker 12, a BAe-146, drops on the Cave Fire Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

The U.S. Forest Service will be signing Call When Needed (CWN) agreements for air tanker services with six companies for a total of 35 aircraft. The agency made it official on December 5, exactly 555 days after the process began May 30, 2018. If that sounds familiar, it took the same amount of time to award the Next-Generation air tanker contracts,  Version 1.0, in 2013. The number “35” is misleading because most if not all of the 13 large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts also have CWN contracts.

The number of aircraft on this new CWN Basic Ordering Agreement can be deceiving, since it includes in some cases air tankers that already have Exclusive Use (EU) contracts, plus of course air tankers that have never been on a USFS contract. Vendors with aircraft currently on the EU contract would also want them on the CWN agreement in case there is a need for tankers outside the Mandatory Availability Period (MAP) specified in the EU contract.

This year there have been 13 air tankers on EU contracts and 8 on CWN agreements. One vendor told me that the USFS personnel said they could submit a tanker that is not built yet as long as it is fully certified by June, 2020. On the other hand, a person from a tanker company told me they were  required to fly their ships to Boise to be inspected, even the ones that were actively working on an EU contract, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

Lessons  were learned after the first Next-Generation contracting process in 2013 gave EU contracts to some planes that never became reality. One of the earlier CWN agreements had many aircraft listed that only appeared in the dreams of the potential vendors.

We will post a list of the 35 individual aircraft on this new agreement when it is available, but we know they represent six companies:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier, Albuquerque, NM
  • Aero Air, Hillsboro, OR
  • Aero Flite, Spokane, WA
  • Coulson Aviation USA, Portland, OR
  • Global SuperTanker Services, Colorado Springs, CO
  • Neptune Aviation Services, Missoula, MT

This is the first CWN agreement that includes both large and very large air tankers (VLATs). When the process began in 2018 it was only for large, and excluded the DC-10 and 747 operated by 10 Tanker and Global SuperTanker. But after extensive negotiations between vendors and the government, and at least one protest, VLATs were finally allowed to participate. The original solicitation was amended at least 10 times. Some of the people presently running the USFS air tanker program think VLATs can only be effective on large fires, and not initial attack. Others might say if a section of a fire, say, 1,000 linear feet, is going to be knocked down or slowed by an air drop, from a scientific point of view what difference does it make if that 1,000-foot section of fire is on initial attack or a larger fire? And after that drop it can circle around and make another one. And another one after that, etc., without additional ferry and reload time between drops.

Quick, aggressive initial attack with overwhelming force on a fire from both the ground and the air can prevent a small fire from becoming a megafire.

Even though the final decision by the USFS of which aircraft would be part of the new CWN agreement was made December 5, the five companies that we were able to immediately contact today were not aware they were receiving the awards. One of them told me later that after we had talked he contacted the USFS who told him official letters would be sent out later this week.

The CWN Basic Ordering Agreement is different from the EU contracts. There is no guarantee that an aircraft on CWN will ever earn a dime. One of the vendors said that even though the application process requires the submission of pricing for daily and hourly rates, those are not etched in stone and may be renegotiated if and when it is activated. In contrast, an aircraft on one of the 13 coveted EU contracts will almost certainly work at least during the agreed upon MAP, earning the promised daily and hourly rates. However most federal contracts contain a clause allowing termination for convenience or default. Termination for convenience allows the federal government to terminate all or part of a contract for its convenience, while termination for default means the government doesn’t think you’re performing adequately.

Below is the list of large and very large air tankers that have been on EU contracts and CWN agreements in August.

Air Tanker List
Air tankers under U.S. Forest Service Contract, August 12, 2019. Source: USFS.

Contract awarded again to install retardant systems in CAL FIRE’s HC-130H aircraft

A contract awarded in 2016 was cancelled

T-131 tank, ready to be pushed into the aircraft.
The retardant tank for air tanker 131, ready to be pushed into the aircraft, March 20, 2014. Bill Gabbert photo.

Coulson Aviation has received a contract from the U.S. Air Force to install retardant delivery systems on the seven HC-130H aircraft that will be operated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). Coulson teamed with Lockheed Martin who will install the tanks at Lockheed’s facility in Greenville, SC.

The Air Force began the contracting process in 2014,  awarded a contract to Coulson in 2016, and cancelled it in 2017. But it was readvertised March 9, 2019 and awarded again to Coulson last month.

Coulson has been installing their version of a 3,500-gallon gravity-powered internal RADS retardant system in C-130Q and C-130H aircraft since at least 2013. It can be installed or removed in a few hours after the modifications are made to the plane.

On December 27, 2013 President Obama signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which directed the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. The legislation also directed that the Air Force spend up to $130 million to perform needed routine and heavy maintenance on the aircraft and to convert them into air tankers.

After the Forest Service lost interest in the HC-130H aircraft in 2018, Congress passed legislation to transfer them to CAL FIRE. Since then they have been waiting for the retardant systems to be installed and the maintenance and other conversion tasks to be completed, which is expected to take until 2021. Most of them needed center wing box replacements, which in 2011 cost $6.7 million and takes about 10 months. CAL FIRE has been operating one without a retardant tank, Tanker 118, for several months to train flight crews.

CAL FIRE T-118 HC-130H
Tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport July 12, 2019.

In November Coulson bought five C-130H transport planes from the Norwegian Defense Materiel Agency (NDMA) and will convert them into firefighting air tankers. The formal takeover is planned for the end of this year or early in 2020.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Brett and Kevin. Typos or errors, report them HERE.