In 2012 the U.S. Forest Service began a study in 2012 to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft in order to better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. Their stated objective was to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?”
After missing all of their self-imposed deadlines to release annual “detailed fire suppression aircraft use summaries” beginning in 2017, the Forest Service only released two “Fact Sheets” of one to two pages each in 2017 and 2019.
Yesterday the Forest Service released what they are calling the final report. The 46-page “Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Report” claims to provide “[A] first-of-its-kind baseline information gathering and analysis effort regarding when and why aviation resources are utilized in responding to wildfires while evaluating mission completion performance. This information will be used to inform future analyses on operational use and fleet investment decisions.”
Pressure to collect firefighting aircraft effectiveness data
A report released by the Government Accountability Office in 2013 about air tankers pointed out some of the same issues in a 2009 audit by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General. Both reports emphasized that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior need to collect data about the effectiveness of air tankers and put together a coherent plan on the management of the fleet, as well as a plan for the acquisition and justification of additional aircraft.
In a 2019 Congressional hearing in which Forest Service personnel were asked about the delays in releasing the AFUE reports, it was explained that data was being collected by four “observation modules,” each comprised of three qualified firefighters and a dedicated aircraft, to collect ground and aerial data at wildfires throughout the nation during fire season. In addition to the 12 firefighters, 3 analysts/managers were tasked to evaluate the data. Christine Schuldheisz, a spokesperson for the USFS, has said the annual cost of the project is approximately $1,300,000.
In 2017 the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation — $507,000,000.
Objectives of the study
The Forest Service had the following goals for the AFUE when it began:
- Determine the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job.
- Determine the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet.
- Track the performance of specific aircraft types.
- Assess the influence of the operational missions that drops supported and environmental factors that influenced outcomes.
One of the guiding principles in the final report was, “Transparency: AFUE reports clearly identified study strengths and limitations, including potential sources of error and bias.”
The timing of the report’s release
We have been asking the Forest Service about the report regularly. Stanton Florea, Fire Communications Specialist for the agency, told us four days ago on August 17, “The AFUE study remains in the review process with the Office of Management and Budget.” The Forest Service released the report dated “March 2020” this week, in the middle of a very busy fire season while Colorado has several large fires and California is experiencing what may be one of the busiest periods of firefighting in the state’s recorded history, based on daily active fire acres.
What is in the report released yesterday?
I don’t have time to study the nuances of the report now, and neither do many of the people from whom I would like to solicit their analysis of the document. So we will save the detailed impressions for later. In the meantime, here a few details.
The report is highly technical and uses jargon apparently invented for the study, or at least used in very narrow, specific ways. Here is how they introduced two terms which are ubiquitous throughout the 42 pages:
- “Interaction Percentage: For a variety of reasons, not every drop interacts with a fire; AFUE only evaluated effectiveness for drops that did interact with fire. IP quantifies the proportion of drops that did interact with fire. Many drops provide utility and insurance by increasing line width or to anchor burnout operations, but do not end up visibly interacting with the fire. IP is computed as the number of drops with known outcomes that interacted with the main fire divided by the total number of drops with known outcomes.
- “Probability of Success: POS is computed as number of effective drops divided by the total number of drops with known and interacting outcomes. This measure can be calculated for any set of conditions to see how success likelihood can vary with factors such as drop objectives, aircraft type, and fire type.”
The study broke down firefighting aircraft into the following categories
- Helicopter: Types 1, 2, and 3
- Water scooping airtankers: single engine and multiengine
- Airtankers: single engine, large, and very large
(Note: the U.S. Forest Service for some reason has always chosen to spell “air tanker” as one word. Yet, they abbreviate Large Airtanker with “LAT”, and Very Large Airtanker with “VLAT”)
Here are two of many graphics in the document.
That was a very, very brief glance at a small part of the AFUE report. Let us know what you think.