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.

Two MD-87 firefighting air tankers will deploy to Australia

This will bring Australia’s fleet of large air tankers up to 11 for the 2019/2020 bushfire season

Air tankers 101 and 105
Air tankers 101 and 105. Erickson Aero Tanker photo.

The companies supplying the four additional large air tankers that will be mobilizing to help the firefighters in Australia have been identified. On January 4 we wrote about the two DC-10s that 10 Tanker Air Carrier will be sending down.

Today we learned that two MD-87s will also be deploying. Matt Isley of Erickson Aero Tanker said Tankers 102 and 103 will be under contract with the Australian federal government. T-102 will be leaving January 13 and T-103 is scheduled for January 16.

One of the DC-10s, T-912 is expected to arrive in Australia on January 15 to be followed by Tanker 914 around January 25 after their heavy maintenance is wrapped up. They will join another DC-10, Tanker 911 that arrived in November.

This additional surge capacity was announced by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on January 4, saying $20 million would be provided for leasing four more large air tankers as supplementary to the normal fleet for the current season only. Mr. Morrison also said 3,000 Australian Defense Force reservists would be brought in to help with bushfire recovery efforts.

Contracts were already in place in Australia for four large privately owned large air tankers and nine large Type 1 helicopters. In addition they have the 737 that the New South Wales Rural Fire Service purchased earlier this year. A C-130Q and a DC-10 were added in November when it became painfully obvious that the 2019/2020 bushfire season was going to be much busier than average. The DC-10s and the MD-87s that will be there in a matter of days will bring the Aussie large air tanker fleet up to 11 for this fire season.

Before 2010 Australia’s air tanker fleet consisted almost entirely of single engine air tankers. That year they began trials of large and very large air tankers, including a DC-10.

In 2018 and 2019 the United States Forest Service had 13 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts.

13 large air tankers under contract for 2019

Currently six of them have been activated

Aero-Flite's Tanker 161
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 161, an RJ85, at McClellan, March 23, 2016. One of the 13 large air tankers under EU contract for 2019 as of April 12, 2019. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service will have 13 large air tankers (LATs) under exclusive use contracts for this year according to the latest information from the U.S. Forest Service as of April 12, 2019. They will be working under the Next Generation Air Tanker contracts, versions 1.0 and 2.0. (Update: list of tankers)

Currently six of them have been activated according to the estimated starting dates of the Mandatory Availability Periods (MAP). On April 17 a seventh will begin. The rest will come on between May 1 and May 29.

The 13 air tankers confirmed so far on exclusive use contracts for 2019 are:

  • 10 Tanker Air Carrier: 910 and 912 (DC-10)
  • Coulson: 131 (C-130Q)
  • Aero Air: 101 and 107, (MD-87)
  • Aero Flite: 160, 161, 163, and 167 (RJ85)
  • Neptune: 01, 15, 16, and 40

All 13 are slated for 160 MAP days but could be extended if necessary.

The baker’s dozen aircraft are likely to be augmented in the not too distant future when the Next Gen 3.0 contract advertised December 2, 2018 is awarded for exclusive use LATs. Forest Service officials are currently going through the submissions which had to be submitted by Valentine’s Day. The solicitation only had five line items, so it appears that a maximum of five air tankers could be added to the contract list, bringing the total up to 18 for this summer.

Recently the FS has been awarding contracts that only guarantee one year, with another four being at the whim of the agency. This makes it very difficult for potential vendors to acquire financing and build multimillion dollar air tankers that may not receive a contract, and if they do, it could only be for one year. Last year the Canadian Province of Manitoba awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven government-owned water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

The Forest Service Aviation Strategy Implementation 2018-2022 dated March, 2018 established that the plan for the number of exclusive use large air tankers and helicopters would be exactly the same during fiscal years 2019 through 2022:

  • 18 large air tankers (down from 44 in 2002)
  • 28 Type 1 helicopters (down from 34 a few years ago)
  • 34 Type 2 helicopters
  • 46 Type 3 helicopters

If there is a need for more than 18 LATs, approval of orders for Call When Needed (CWN) ships must be first approved by the Washington Office of the FS. This cost saving effort that began in 2018 is intended to create greater accountability and oversight for aircraft. There are probably more than a dozen large air tankers sitting on ramps over and above the 13 presently on contract for this year.

The FS has two pending contracts that have not yet been awarded for CWN air tankers: large and very large. The responses for LATs are due April 18, 2019 while the VLATs were due seven months ago.

UPDATE April 17, 2019: The VLAT CWN solicitation has been effectively cancelled, but changes made to the LAT CWN solicitation with responses due tomorrow made it possible for VLATs to meet the contract specifications, so they can be considered along with the LATs. The USFS made so many changes to the solicitation, 12 amendments, that they are calling it CWN 2.1 Request for Proposals. The response due date, originally in the summer of 2018, has been extended at least nine times.

10 Tanker is getting four DC-10’s ready for the season

10 tanker DC-10 maintenance support units

Above: The four Maintenance Support units for 10 Tanker — one for each DC-10. Photo by Robert Mouck.

The crews at 10 Tanker Air Carrier are getting their four DC-10 air tankers ready for the fire season. Two of the aircraft are on exclusive use (EU) contracts with the U.S. Forest Service and the other two are on call when needed (CWN) contracts with the Forest Service.

The company just completed a two-year EU contract with New South Wales in Australia and will be submitting a bid for the next two years. 10 Tanker also has CWN contracts with Douglas County (just south of Denver) and four states: Nevada, California, Montana, and Minnesota.

They just upgraded their Maintenance Support units that follow the air tankers. Each of the four aircraft has a dedicated large goose-neck trailer full of tools and spare parts pulled by a Dodge heavy duty crew cab pickup.

John Gould, President of 10 Tanker, said they recently resolved a Supplemental Type Certificate issue with the FAA and expect to finalize some details with the Operational Load Monitoring System and the ATU soon, and then they will be carded again for this year.

10 Tanker maintenance support trucks
Some of the Maintenance Support units for 10 Tanker. Photo by RK Smithley.

2017 was a busy year for air tankers

In spite of that, the numbers of air tankers and helicopters are being slashed

CL-415, air tanker

Above: A water-scooping air tanker, a CL-415, at Sacramento, March 12, 2018.

In our notes from the Aerial Firefighting conference HERE and HERE, we included information about how some air tankers were busier than usual in 2017:

  • Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation, said their air tankers in 2016 averaged 180 hours while working on wildfires. In 2017 that increased to 276 hours each.
  • Rick Hatton of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said each of their three DC-10s averaged about 300 hours on fires in 2017, which is more than usual.
  • Shawna Legarza, the USFS Director of Fire and Aviation, said the two Aero-Flite CL-415 scooping air tankers that were on exclusive use (EU) USFS contracts in 2017 each had over 400 hours of fire flight time.

After we reported the information above, Jason Robinson, the Chief CL-415 pilot for Aero-Flite contacted us to supply more details. He generally  confirmed the numbers reported  by Ms. Legarza and said their two EU and two CWN CL-415’s averaged 410 hours each. In July and August alone the four scoopers flew 1,036 hours. The company brought in extra staffing to provide seven-day coverage and manage pilot fatigue. He said that in 2017, 12 Canadian CL-415’s and CL-215’s worked in California and Montana.

Mr. Robinson said they have operated CL-415’s in Alaska for up to 12 hours a day by double-crewing the aircraft.

Due to a reduction in the federal firefighting budget by the Administration and Congress, there will be no scoopers on the EU list this year. Some are still on a CWN contract, but they may or may not be available if the USFS Calls them When Needed. The large air tankers are being cut from 20 to 13 while the large Type 1 helicopters have been reduced from 34 to 28.

News from the Aerial Firefighting conference, Part One

Air Tractor

Above: the Air Tractor display at the Aerial Firefighting conference.

Here are a few notes that I scribbled in a notebook at the Aerial Firefighting conference in Sacramento this week. This is Part One — I will post Part Two later.


Air Tractor
Mike Schoenau, an Air Tractor dealer out of Tulare, CA, said a new single engine air tanker is being flight tested now. The model name is AT-1002 and will hold up to 1,000 gallons. You will be able to purchase one for yourself for about $2.5 Million.

Fire Boss
Fire BossThe Bureau of Land Management has not released their list of SEATs on contract this year, many of which will be the amphibious Fire Boss, a variant of the Air Tractor 802. Fire Boss doesn’t know if they will be converting the new AT-1002 1,000-gallon SEAT to use floats.

10 Tanker

Rick Hatton, 10 Tanker
RIck Hatton of 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

Their fourth converted DC-10, Tanker 914, will be ready to fight fire this summer. Rick Hatton, the President and CEO of  10 Tanker Air Carrier, said their approval by the Interagency Airtanker Board came to the end of its six-year term, so they retook the grid test in December. Their three DC-10s averaged about 300 hours on fires in 2017, which is more than usual.

I got into a long detailed conversation with Mr. Hatton about how their retardant delivery system can maintain a constant flow, adjusting for the amount of retardant in the tank, drop height, and speed. It usually drops at 150 knots and 200 feet.

Hours per CL-415
As we reported yesterday, Shawna Legarza, the USFS Director of Fire and Aviation, said the two CL-415 scooping air tankers that were on USFS contract in 2017 each had over 400 hours of fire flight time. Due to a reduction in the firefighting budget, the two scoopers had to be cut this year from the exclusive use list. At least a couple are still on a CWN contract, but they may or may not be available if the USFS Calls them When Needed.

Columbia
Columbia HelicoptersKeith Saylor, Columbia’s Director of Commercial Operations, said the company will have three Type 1 helicopters, CH-47 Chinooks, on exclusive use contract this year. Two have internal tanks and one will use an external bucket.

Conair
ConairShawn Bethel, Conair’s Director, International Business Development, said the external tank on the Q400 can be removed in about three hours by 9 to 12 workers. They recently received a contract to supply six Q400’s to France’s Securite Civile (Department of Civil Defense and Emergency Preparedness).

The Q400 MR can carry up to 10,000 liters (2,600 gallons) of water or retardant. In addition to the nine S-2’s and two Q-400’s, France also has twelve CL-415’s and 40 helicopters.