The U.S. Forest Service has a total of 28 large air tankers actively working on their roster. The fire year started with 13 on 160-day Exclusive Use (EU) contracts. In May and June another 11 were added with 90-day contracts, then a few days ago two more came on with a “to be determined” end date. With the two National Guard C-130 MAFFS aircraft that were added today, the grand total is 28.
This is a breathtaking change from how the USFS has been managing the large air tanker program during the last 17 years. The last time there were this many available on medium to long term contracts to assist firefighters in the initial attack of new wildfires was in the early 2000s. In 2004 there were 27 on EU contracts. In 2003 there were 34, and 44 in 2002. It is common for the USFS to bring on additional Call When Needed aircraft for an unscheduled period lasting from days to weeks but most of these aircraft this year are working for a guaranteed 90 or 160 days.
Here is the breakdown with the number of aircraft by air tanker companies, as of July 22, 2020:
- Nine; Neptune Aviation, BAe-146.
- Six; Aero Flite, RJ85.
- Six; Erickson Aero Air, MD-87.
- Three; 10 Tanker Air Carrier, DC-10.
- Two; Coulson Aviation, one C-130Q and one B-737.
- Two; California National Guard, C-130 MAFFS. (not on USFS contract)
Most of the aircraft are certified to carry up to 3,000 gallons. The exceptions: Coulson’s two aircraft can carry 4,000, and the DC-10s are approved for 9,400.
When writing about the number of air tankers available, we often include the disclaimer that aircraft do not put out fires. But under ideal conditions they can slow the spread of a fire long enough to allow firefighters on the ground enough time to move in and contain the spread of that section of the fire perimeter. If firefighters are not available to take advantage of the temporary slowing, fires can sometimes burn through or around the retardant or water that was dropped. During strong winds all bets are off. Nothing can stop a fire when the wind is howling and there is plenty of dry fuel available.
I have written before:
Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible can reduce the number of megafires.
If fires are suppressed while small, it can prevent the very large fires that can go on for weeks or months, requiring many more firefighters and aircraft to put themselves at risk for a much longer period of time than quickly hitting a fire hard during the first burning period.
Kudos to the U.S. Forest Service and the other agencies that employ firefighters for their emphasis this year on aggressively attacking new fires. The expressed reason is the conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Firefighters, to a certain extent, are slowed by some of the new safety precautions necessary to deal with the virus. In addition, reducing the amount of wood smoke in the air can cut down on the adverse impacts to patients with breathing difficulties. Preliminary evidence suggests exposure to wildfire smoke may increase susceptibility to COVID-19.
We can hope that after the United States finally gets a handle on COVID, the agencies will have developed some muscle memory about how to reduce the number of new fires that turn into megafires.
Attack aggressively with overwhelming force.