Perimeter

Forest Service Chief tells Congress “we’re on the right track with our air tankers”

The agency’s required report on 10-year contracts for aerial firefighting is overdue

Vickie Christiansen Appropriations Committee Forest Service
Vickie Christiansen testified remotely before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies April 15, 2021.

In testimony April 15 before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vickie Christiansen spoke to members of Congress remotely from a spacious office. She had two clear opportunities to accept or ask for more funding in two very important inadequately budgeted areas, fuels treatment and aerial firefighting. In one case when told by a member of Congress “You’re going to need some more help in the resource department,” she incredibly said, “No.”

Funding for aerial firefighting

At 34:05 in the video below Rep. Mike Simpson from Idaho was discussing aerial firefighting, and point blank asked — how much money do you need? She replied at the end of a long, off the subject meandering discourse, “We think we are really on the right track with our air tankers,” without mentioning budget needs.

“One thing I’ve been dealing with,” Rep. Simpson said, “are the aviation assets of the Forest Service… Are we going to have a clear outline for the next 10-year plan for what the Forest Service needs in terms of air assets? How the five and ten year contracts you’re looking at will affect us and benefit us and what we need to put into our budget to so that the Forest Service has the necessary equipment to address these wildfires?”

Chief Vickie Christiansen: “All great questions. But I have to say, you know it was, let me see, 16 years ago I was the new state forester in the state of Washington and my first time before this committee, you were ranking member………. (three and a half minutes later:) Relative to your question about air tankers, the contracting air tanker community has really come on line they are meeting our needs of contemporary air tanker capacity for wildland fire in the U.S. We are studying the question about going to a 10-year contract, what the pros and cons are. We’re nearly complete with that report. It will be going through clearance in a matter of a few days and it will be getting to the committee here shortly. So we’d be glad to discuss more about air tankers. But we think we are really on the right track with our air tankers. And thank you for being such a help and an advocate for getting us get the right resources.”

Rep. Mike Simpson: “Thank you.”

Doubling or tripling the treatment of fuels

Later, at 48:00, Rep. Mark Amodei of Nevada had been talking about slow, medium, and fast lanes for fuel treatments: “If we want to start getting to the point with the National Forest Lands where we can say our stewardship is in the medium lane as far as fuels management then you’re going to need some more help in the resource department.”

Chief Vickie Christiansen, speaking to the Appropriations committee: “No. What I can speak to Congressman is the science. It is the policy of Congress and the Administration on how fast we go.”

(The Representative then seemed to become a little exasperated, perhaps wanting the Chief to say, “Yes, we could make more progress treating fuels if you could increase our funding.”)

Rep. Mark Amodei: “As a budget reality if this committee wants to help you with fuels, I’m just going to say it — you can disagree with me — we need to do better.”

Chief Vickie Christiansen: “We need to do better. We need to do better. We have more to do to make a difference, a significant difference, on the landscape.”

The need to do more was repeated in another discussion about treating fuels at 57:00. In a discussion with Representative Susie Lee (Nevada) the Chief said their data shows that when a wildfire spreads into an area that has been treated to reduce fuels, 86 percent of the time the fire behavior reduces significantly into a low-intensity fire. Their goal now, she said, is to “treat 40 percent of a fireshed in order to have a resilient forest.”

Rep. Susie Lee: “How realistic is it to be able to treat 40 percent of a fireshed?”

Chief Vickie Christiansen: “Well, that’s why we have to up our game two to three times what we are doing now. ”

Rep. Susie Lee: “OK.”

The Chief did not explain how she is going to increase fuels treatment by “two to three times” on stagnant funding.

10-year contracts and fuel treatments

In December, 2020 Congress directed the Forest Service and the DOI to submit a report within 90 days that considered awarding 10 year contracts for aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities.

Fire Aviation wrote about these critical issues in December, 2018 and October, 2020. Here is a brief excerpt from the latter:

These one-year firefighting aircraft contracts need to be converted to 10-year contracts, and the number of Type 1 helicopters must be restored to at least the 34 we had for years.

In addition to aircraft, the federal agencies need to have much more funding for activities that can prevent fires from starting and also keep them from turning into megafires that threaten lives, communities, and private land. More prescribed burning and other fuel treatments are absolutely necessary.

The longer we put this off the worse the situation will become as the effects of climate change become even more profound.

Technology in the Forest Service

In Chief Christiansen’s five-page prepared testimony, several tech-related initiatives were mentioned:

We are also investing in several key technology and modernization portfolios; including, Data Management, Enhanced Real Time Operating Picture, Decision Support Applications, and Modern Tools for a Modern Response. Additionally, implementation of the Large Fire Assessment process, as directed by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (Fiscal Year 2021 Omnibus), is helping us better account for our actions while fostering a learning culture.

Chief Christiansen said (at 18:15) the agency is investing $8 million in a pilot program to utilize a system for tracking the location of firefighters. They are also standing up a program for Unmanned Aerial Systems by purchasing their first 20 aircraft.

The agency has signed an agreement with the Department of Defense and committed funds to access a system that uses satellites to detect fires “which already supported over 500 fires just this year alone in 2021.” She did not say if she was referring to the fiscal which began October 1 or calendar year.

CAL FIRE expects to have seven new Firehawk helicopters in operation this year

The Governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year asks for 16 additional firefighting hand crews

CAL FIRE's new i70 Firehawk helicopter
CAL FIRE’s new S-70i Firehawk, helicopter 205, being tested at Centennial, Colorado May 7, 2020. Photo by @skippyscage.

The California Governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes funding to continue making arrangements for the seven C-130H aircraft that are being converted to air tankers and continuing the replacement of their Huey helicopters.

New Helicopters

Funds to replace CAL FIRE’s 12 Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters with new Siskorsky S70i Firehawks have already been received and allocated. Three new ships have been deployed so far, and it is estimated that four more will be put into operation sometime during the 2021 fire season (for a total of seven). CAL FIRE expects to put the remaining five helicopters into operation in 2022.

C-130H air tankers

The Budget includes $48.4 million to support the phasing in of seven large air tankers, C-130Hs. The 2019 and 2020 Budget Acts included funding for the aircraft that will be transferred from the federal government starting in 2021-22. The air tankers, currently owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, are being retrofitted by the U.S. Air Force utilizing $150 million in federal funding. CAL FIRE is continuing to prepare for the arrival of these aircraft by training and certifying new dedicated flight crews and mechanics, and cross‑training and certifying its existing pilots to fly the aircraft to assist firefighters. CAL FIRE is working with its federal partners to meet the expected 2021-22 arrival of the air tankers.

More hand crews

The Governor is asking for 16 additional firefighting hand crews. He also wants to establish 14 more California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews that are often assigned at incident command posts on fires to assist with Logistics and other support functions.

The budget document says, “The fire crews will enable CAL FIRE to respond to larger and more damaging wildfires throughout the fire season and complete priority fuel reduction projects to reduce wildfire risk in fire-threatened areas.”

One of the justifications for the additional personnel was the “existing population trends” in prisons that has reduced the number of inmates available for firefighting.

Forest Health

The Budget also includes $1 billion for a comprehensive package of resources to increase the pace and scale of forest health activities and decrease fire risk, including $581 million for CAL FIRE in 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Research

The budget also includes $5 million to provide a research grant to California State University, San Marcos to study enhanced firefighting equipment and strategies to protect firefighters from conditions present during wildfires in the wildland urban interface. 

What’s next

The Governor’s proposed budget will be considered by the legislature and will be subject to modifications before a final budget is passed.

U.S. Congress suggests Forest Service consider longer term aviation contracts

10-year contracts are being considered

US Capitol
US Capitol

The appropriations bill passed by Congress which may soon be signed by the President does not have any earthshaking changes to the wildland fire budgets of the land management agencies in the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Forest Service. Wildfire Today has the details about the bill which allocates funding for this fiscal year that began October 1, 2020.

There is one interesting section that may affect contracts for firefighting aircraft.

The “explanatory statement” that accompanies the bill  has a surprisingly lengthy section (at the end of this article) that directs the Forest Service and the DOI to submit a report within 90 days that considers awarding 10 year contracts for aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities.

The Next Generation 3.0 contracts for five large air tankers announced in October are for only one year with the possibility of up to four more years at the discretion of the FS.

The Next Gen 1.0 and Next Gen 2.0 contracts were for five guaranteed years with up to five more at the discretion of the FS. This trend of only issuing one year guaranteed contracts is disturbing. In an interview with Fire Aviation in October, Dan Snyder, Senior Vice-President of Neptune Aviation, was asked about the one-year contracts:

“If that becomes the new USFS contacting model, I believe it will create a barrier to entry for other vendors due to the risks involved,” Mr. Snyder said. “It will also make long-term planning for aircraft acquisition, maintenance, training and hiring of staff, difficult even for the established vendors in aerial firefighting.”

The explanatory statement also addresses aircraft on state or local contracts:

“The Committee is concerned that, in some cases, aerial firefighting companies put forward by states for inclusion in Cooperator Letters, and that are certified by states as meeting the equivalent of either Forest Service or Department of Interior standards, are not receiving timely approval or are receiving conditional approvals that limit states from fully utilizing their resources to fight wildfires. Given the patchwork of state and federal lands and the scale of wildfires, the Committee urges timely and transparent Cooperator Letter decisions to allow states to adequately respond to regional wildfires, including providing feedback to state wildfire agencies with detailed rationale for denials of requests. The Forest Service is directed to brief the Committee within 180 days of enactment of this Act on actions that can be taken to improve this process to include the feasibility of federal carding outside the federal contracting process.”


Our take-

In October I wrote about the need for longer aviation contracts:

“Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use 10-year guaranteed contracts.

“Protecting our citizens and forests from wildfires is more important than sending our soldiers and trillions of dollars to fight wars in places that many people could not find on a map. Suppressing wildfires and managing federal forests to reduce the threat to our citizens is a Homeland Security issue and should be adequately funded. And, firefighters need to be paid a living wage. You can’t fight fires on the cheap.”


Below is the text from the “explanatory statement” regarding length of aviation contracts that accompanies the appropriations bill (HR-7612):

Continue reading “U.S. Congress suggests Forest Service consider longer term aviation contracts”

Senate Committee Chair: Put out wildfires fast and early

Senator Murkowski encouraged the land management agencies to ensure there are a sufficient number of aircraft available to play a greater role on initial attack

Tanker 912 Horse Butte Fire Idaho
Tanker 912, a DC-10, dropping retardant on the Horse Butte Fire in Idaho, July, 2019. Photo by Mike Krupski.

(This article first appeared on Wildfire Today)

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Republican Chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, yesterday sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt encouraging them to adopt an aggressive posture for fighting wildfires during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Currently, the federal government along with state and local governments across the country are mobilized to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. And now those same government entities, already stretched thin, are preparing to fight wildland fire in a world where COVID-19 still rages,” Murkowski wrote. “This problem could be particularly pronounced for regions like the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, which only received 40 percent of anticipated snowpack levels this winter.”

Murkowski urged the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to put fires out fast and early, and to limit the practice of intentionally allowing some wildfires to burn on landscapes. She also encouraged the agencies to ensure a sufficient number of aircraft are available to play a greater role on initial attack and emphasized the importance of protecting the health and safety of wildland firefighters.

“This season, these heroes will be waging a war against wildfires in at-risk communities in addition to a pandemic that threatens their families,” Murkowski wrote. “I understand that both Departments are producing guidance to ensure the public health and use of social distancing of firefighters who are deployed in the field. You are no doubt managing firefighter safety as a top priority and I encourage you to continue doing so.”

One of the roles of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is to oversee the four primary federal land management agencies — Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish & Wildlife Service, and Forest Service.

Click here to view the full letter from Senator Murkowski.

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.”

Senators ask USFS to keep operating the HC-130H air tanker until end of year

The USFS plans to shut down their HC-130H air tanker program September 17, 2018

HC-130H Coast Guard US Forest Service
Three of the four former Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft that have recently been at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Seen here: T-118 (in USFS livery), and two ships still with Coast Guard livery, 1709 and 1714.  Photo by Drew P. Hansen.

(Originally published at 3:07 p.m. PDT September 8, 2018)

Two Senators from California have written a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue imploring him to retain until the end of the year two former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft that the U.S. Forest Service decided they no longer want. Legislation passed a few weeks ago directed that seven Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft, originally intended to be used by the USFS, be transferred to the state of California after work is complete by the Air Force to convert them to air tankers with conventional gravity-powered retardant tanks.

Below is an excerpt from the Senators’ letter, dated August 30, 2018:

…The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (Public Law 115-232) authorizes the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the State of California for firefighting purposes. Two of these seven aircraft are currently in use in California by the Forest Service. While they will eventually be outfitted with a gravity retardant delivery system, there is no need to pull these two aircraft from California’s front lines for many months. Instead, these aircraft should remain actively engaged in California as we approach the historically most active months of the fire year.

Given the continuing threat of catastrophic wildfires in California, we ask that you continue operating the two HC-130H aircraft in California to ensure that every asset is available to protect lives and property. Thank you for considering our request.

To be clear, today there are four former Coast Guard HC-130Hs at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Two of these four have been painted in USFS livery, Tankers 116 and 118, and two ships still have Coast Guard livery, 1709 and 1714. A third ship has been painted, Tanker 119, and it is already in long term storage. None of them have conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery systems. The Air Force should have installed them by now but had contracting difficulties which they did not solve.

The USFS has “borrowed” one of the Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that is assigned to the Air National Guard base in Reno, Nevada — one of eight distributed by the USFS to four military bases (two each) that operate C-130s. They can be installed in a matter of hours in a C-130. The MAFFS units are owned and maintained by the USFS for the purpose of having access to a surge capacity of eight additional air tankers operated by the military.

One of the aircraft, T-116, made 330 drops in 2017.

But the USFS is only using one MAFFS unit, the one from Reno, so they can only operate one of the former Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft at a time as an air tanker. The USFS has not used the aircraft on a routine basis for other duties, such as hauling fire equipment or firefighters, so right now the USFS can see no use for the additional HC-130H aircraft, except as possible spares if maintenance or other issues keep the primary ship on the ground.

The USFS plan is to return the borrowed MAFFS unit to the Reno Air National Guard base on September 17, effectively shutting down the program.

Contractors have been operating and maintaining the aircraft, similar to the CAL FIRE model for their 23 air tankers. But the USFS contract for the flight crew will be cancelled on September 20, 2018. The maintenance contract will remain in effect.

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

Legislation to transfer 7 Coast Guard HC-130H’s to CAL FIRE lands on President’s desk

Much work still needs to be performed on the aircraft by the U.S. Air Force before they become firefighting air tankers

Air Tanker 116 HC-130H retardant
File photo of Air Tanker 116, an HC-130H, spraying retardant on a fire near Phoenix, June 22, 2017. Fox 20 Phoenix.

The amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 to authorize the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the state of California made it through the conference committee and was passed by both houses. It was given to the President on Friday and he is expected to sign it. The aircraft will be converted to firefighting air tankers capable of dropping at least 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

The part of the bill regarding the aircraft formerly owned and operated by the Coast Guard is a relatively small portion of the legislation that covers $717 billion in spending for the Department of Defense. It directs the Air Force to complete the center and outer wing-box replacement modifications as needed, programmed depot-level maintenance, and procure and install a gravity powered retardant delivery system in each aircraft.

The bill increases the maximum spending limits that were specified in the original 2013 legislation. The amount that can be spent on the retardant systems increased from $5 million to $7.5 million per aircraft, and the total amount spent on the entire project went from $130 million to $150 million.

In 2013, legislation directed that the seven aircraft be modified into air tankers and transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. So far at least two have come close to completing the modifications, but none of them have had retardant delivery systems installed, due primarily to delays in Air Force contracting. Occasionally one at a time has been spotted, T-116 or T-118, dropping retardant, using a Modular Airborne FireFighting System taken from the eight MAFFS units that are usually assigned to Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve squadrons. This fiscal year the administration decided, five years after the process began, that they are no longer interested in acquiring the HC-130H’s.

CAL FIRE has maintained a fleet of 23 S-2T air tankers for years that can carry up to 1,200 gallons of retardant. These seven HC-130H’s would be a very significant addition to their aviation program.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to MrCAPT1409.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Senators ask Forest Service Chief about cutback in air tankers

In 2017 there were 20 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This year there are 13.

In a hearing Tuesday morning about the Forest Service budget for FY 2019 before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senators asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, about the reduction in the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts and the agency’s plans to rely on call when needed aircraft to fill the void.

Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief Forest Service
Ms. Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief, U.S. Forest Service, testifies April 24, 2018.

Lisa Murkowski (AK), Chair of the committee,  mentioned the issue during her opening remarks. Senators Maria Cantwell (WA) and Cory Gardner (CO) asked questions about what could be a shortage of air tankers, with most of the discussion centering around call when needed vendors. The Senators appeared to be concerned about the higher daily and hourly costs of CWN aircraft, and referred to the 48-hour time frame for them to mobilize after notification.

air tankers contract exclusive use 2000-2018

Ms. Christiansen tried two or three times to explain how activating CWN air tankers works and how the USFS makes decisions about when to bring them on board. Her descriptions were rambling as she talked about predictive services, but it was a little too ambiguous for some of the senators who asked for clarification.

Senator Gardner mentioned that this year there are 13 exclusive use large air tankers compared to 20 last year, and talked about how call when needed aircraft are more expensive than exclusive use aircraft. He said, “What is the rationale for that again?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we really look hard and do our analysis on the right balance between the exclusive use which is for an extended period of time and the call when needed. We take this very seriously and we will evaluate each year and adjust for the balance of these contracts. These next generation aircraft are more expensive than the legacy aircraft we had operated for the last two decades. So we have to be fiscally prudent and responsible in finding that right balance. We are confident that we have the aircraft we need when we need it through the combination of exclusive use, the call when needed, the military MAFFS, and then when we can call our partners down from Alaska and Canada.”

Senator Gardner continued: “Do you think you’re providing industry with enough certainty, private industry with enough certainty, to replace some of the contracts in the past that were coming out of the Forest Service in terms of the air tankers that were in use since the 2014 passage of the Defense Authorization Act?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator Gardner we are doing everything we can to be a good partner with the industry and exercise our fiscal responsibility.”

No one acknowledged the elephant in the room, the reason there are fewer air tankers. The budget that Congress approved and the President signed forced the reduction. Ms. Christiansen, a member of the administration, apparently feels that she has to be a good soldier and say, everything is fine, there’s nothing to see here: “We are confident that we have the aircraft we need”.

And the Senators don’t want to admit that they approved legislation which caused the number of EU air tankers to be cut by one-third. So they asked mild-mannered questions and didn’t follow up when the administration’s representative insisted that everything is going to be OK.

During a discussion about budget reductions on a different issue, Senator Joseph Manchin (WV) said, “Have you been able to push back on the administration, saying you can’t cut me this deep, I can’t do my job?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we have prioritized what we can do within these constraints…”

Senator Manchin: There’s a lot of us that will go out and …..”

Ms. Christiansen: “Our priority is on the National Forests, but I look forward to working with you on additional priorities.”

Meanwhile, John Hoven, the Senator from North Dakota, spent most of his allotted time presenting what was basically an infomercial about his state.

A recorded video of the hearing will be available at the committee’s website.