The five federal land management agencies have 201 aircraft on exclusive use contract this year for assisting wildland firefighters, according to the information we received from spokespersons for the agencies.
In 2016 the FS hired 34 Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts but starting in 2017 reduced the number to 28. The fleet remained at that level until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 when they added an additional 22 ships for a total of 50. The agency felt the “surge” helicopters were necessary to mitigate a possible decrease in the effectiveness or numbers of their ground forces — engines and hand crews. In addition, the federal land management agencies said last year they were going to limit the number of less-than-full-suppression fires and attack new ignitions aggressively.
This year there will be 20 Type 1 helicopters on surge contracts, for a total of 48. These are the largest-capacity helicopters used for firefighting, capable of carrying 700 to 3,000 gallons of water.
Over the last 10 years the average number of large multi-engine air tankers (LAT) on exclusive use (EU) US Forest Service contracts was 14.0 for the United States. The average number on EU contracts from 2000 through 2009 was 28.3. This year there are 18, which is 5 more than last year.
Due to the pandemic last year the FS gave about seven companies hybrid surge Call When Needed (CWN) LAT contracts that were basically EU, but for 90 days, rather than the typical 160-day EU Mandatory Availability Period. The rates they negotiated were generally less than the typically high CWN rates. For a while they also activated four additional LATs on a true CWN basis, with no guarantee of days worked.
This year there are 18 LATs on EU contracts and 8 more could come on later on surge contracts, with an additional 8 possible, the FS says, on CWN contracts.
As of June 9 there were 17 LATs actively working on EU contracts, one scheduled to begin its EU contract on June 20, and one CWN that was activated June 9.
All of the LATs and Very Large Air Tankers on EU contracts can hold up to 3,000 gallons of retardant, except for Coulson’s C-130 (4,000) and the 10 Tanker DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (9,400).
In addition to the LATs and Type 1 helicopters, this year the additional aircraft on EU contracts among all the Federal wildland firefighting agencies include:
- 43 Type 2 helicopters (smaller than Type 1 helicopters)
- 41 Single Engine Air Tankers
- 0 Multi-engine scooping air tankers
- 26 Air Tactical fixed wing
- 27 Aerial Supervision fixed wing
- 14 Smokejumper fixed wing
- 2 Infrared mapping fixed wing
- 1 Large passenger aircraft (typically a 737)
The Federal government also has the ability to activate up to eight military C-130 aircraft equipped with 3,000-gallon Modular FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) if additional LATs are needed. The Governors of the four states in which they are based may also activate the two within their state.