Opinion: how to best utilize the aerial firefighting fleet

Tanker 892 single engine air tanker wildfire
Tanker 892, a SEAT, drops near the Aldrich Lookout Tower on the Sunflower Fire in Grant County, Oregon in 2014. Photo by Todd McKinley.

The following opinion article was sent to us by U.S. Forest Service retiree Bill Derr. He said it was written by him in consultation with personnel involved in aerial firefighting, retirees, aerial firefighting industry people, and some Forest Service employees both retired and presently working for the agency. Mr. Derr said “it reflects the collective views of knowledgeable people engaged in wildfire suppression”.

It’s time to finally get serious about how to best utilize our aerial firefighting fleet

Aerial firefighting strategies and aircraft mobilization tactics must be revisited given the intensifying threat of US wildfires and mounting pressure to do so with limited additional funding. Existing models were built for a different time and have not kept pace with how much the wildfire fighting environment has changed for the worse. It is not lost on anyone who has been in the industry for more than a few years that getting on a fire faster, even with small amounts of water, water enhancer or retardant, significantly reduces the possibility of that fire start becoming national news. In the face of the 2020 wildfire season and the complications presented by managing it in a COVID‐19 operating environment, keeping small fires small, for as long as possible, will be a key success factor in limiting both the spread of the virus and number of large fires.

Fire agencies need to use the nation’s aerial firefighting assets in a manner that produces the best possible outcomes for our citizens and our ground‐based wildland fire fighters. The strategy is simple: lead the battle through the pre‐positioning of the numerous (~200) smaller, significantly less costly Special Operations assets such as wheeled SEATs, Fire Bosses and Type 3 helicopters and if the during the battle these assets look to be needing more support, send in the less numerous (~35) and more costly VLATs/LATs to ensure the fire is contained. This strategy would optimize the usage and effectiveness of the country’s entire aerial firefighting force and provide Incident Commanders the appropriate time required to request and receive the LATs and VLATs if needed.

Initial response and direct air strategies that utilize the large number of less costly smaller aircraft built to conduct rapid initial attack on the front lines – ideally in combination with smokejumpers, and often ahead of, ground fire suppression equipment and personnel – can better contain fires and keep them small. This provides the ground crews an advantage in putting out blazes more efficiently, helping to limit wildfire devastation and the ever‐increasing associated costs for fire suppression, and freeing up valuable funds for the federal and state restoration and forest management work that helps prevent catastrophic fires in the first place.

Improving the safety and effectiveness of wildfire response is the highest priority set forth by the US Departments of Interior and Agriculture in the 2014 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy1 (National Strategy), commissioned by Congress as part of the 2009 FLAME act2. This strategic priority includes “enhancing wildfire response preparedness with an emphasis on both structural protection and wildfire prevention to maximize the effectiveness of initial response.” The second priority aims to restore our nation’s landscapes through vegetation and fuels management. General guidance in this area includes “designing and prioritizing fuel treatments; strategically placing fuel treatments; increasing use of wildland fire for meeting resource objectives; and continuing and expanding the use of all methods to improve the resiliency of our forests and rangelands.” The final priority involves “engaging homeowners and communities in creating fire adapted communities where populations and infrastructure can withstand fire without loss of property.” To move the needle toward achieving National Strategy goals, the way we wildfire response tactics must be reevaluated to improve effectiveness and rein in costs. By doing so, we can ensure that programs to restore and maintain US landscapes are positioned (and funded) to succeed.

The first pillar of the National Strategy—improving the safety and effectiveness of wildfire response—is more important than ever as blazes burn larger and dangerously hot over the course of a longer season. One area of wildfire response that is primed for increased effectiveness is the use of aerial firefighting.

For decades now, the use of firefighting aircraft has been central to wildfire response programs. However, as the decades have passed by, traditional aerial firefighting strategies have remained mostly unchanged despite the shifting fire environment and the introduction of new aircraft, technologies and tactics. To increase response effectiveness, it is time for these strategies to be revisited.

The yet to be published USFS Aerial Firefighting Usage and Effectiveness Study (AFUES), initiated in 2012, will likely produce a result that is already obvious to most wildland firefighters: the probability of succeeding in battling a wildfire and living to see another day is significantly increased when you start working a fire start within the first hour. The problem of that being the outcome of the study is that there aren’t enough LATs/VLATs and Type 1 and 2 helicopters in the currently contracted USFS fleet to ever achieve that goal and little or no additional funding to make it happen. These agencies need to find a way to do more with same amount of limited funding. What this paper proposes is a way to do so.

Fortunately, an entire fleet of smaller fixed‐wing and rotary assets do exist to achieve this goal. Our state and federal fire agencies, primarily driven by the USFS, need to rethink the integration of these smaller, easily and cost effectively distributed assets into their response to wildfire starts. A multimillion dollar study that has not been completed in well over 8 years is not needed for most fire fighters who have been in the industry over the last two to three decades. Let’s start demanding a change in how we use these costly assets. It will result in better outcomes for every citizen in a fire prone region (less devastation and healthcare impact) and significantly reduce the risk and danger posed to our wildland firefighting brothers and sisters that results from long drawn out campaign fires.

Aerial firefighting through initial response to wildfires
It is well known that aerial firefighting is most effective through initial attack on small wildfires3. During initial attack, small, prepositioned initial attack fixed wing aircraft and helicopters can arrive on a scene within minutes, carrying loads of water or retardant that can help contain a situation until ground crews arrive to put it out. If smokejumpers are available in the area, the probability of success increases substantially. Each time a small wildfire is suppressed during initial response, agencies prevent greater devastation and millions more in associated costs that come with large and very large fires4. In fact, a USDA Audit Report found that when success rate of USFS initial response dropped by 1.5% in 2007, it represented an estimated 150 more fires that escaped containment and cost the Forest Service an additional $300 million to $450 million to suppress5. By avoiding decreases like this and instead improving the success rate of initial attack, the USFS could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in savings that could be used to fund critical fuels management tactics like forest thinning and prescribed burns. The full benefits of reliable and successful initial attack are realized when small wildfires are quickly suppressed and the resulting budget savings are funneled into programs that help restore ecological balance to our forests and better protect against megafires for years and decades to come.

Additionally, there are public health benefits to extinguishing fires through initial attack. A lower amount of smoke is released into the air, which in past wildfire situations has affected the health of thousands of people in communities across the US. Fewer harmful carbons are emitted, which research shows can have a lasting impact on climate change—severe wildfire seasons such as 2015, 2017 and 2018 have the potential to release a decade’s worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere in just a single season6. The degradation of water quality is also reduced when a wildfire is suppressed quickly, as each large wildfire increases susceptibility of watersheds to flooding and erosion which can have short and long‐term impacts on water supplies, such as increased treatment costs, need for alternative supplies, and diminished reservoir capacity7. These public health benefits underscore the importance of the National Strategy’s first priority, “to maximize the effectiveness of initial response” so wildfires can be suppressed and extinguished while they’re still small.

More specifically regarding public health, the 2020 season is going to be an even greater challenge than any other previous season as a result of the COVID‐19 pandemic. Fire agencies will be focused on reducing the number and size of fire camps this coming season due to the potential of infection across a larger portion of a camp. They will also be trying to minimize the number of evacuations that result in citizens needing to shelter for protection in local gyms and auditoriums. To achieve these goals, fire agencies will need to provide as much aerial firefighting force as possible, as quickly as possible.8

However, the reality is that the current aerial firefighting models are not optimized to execute the swift, reliable initial response needed to control fires that are burning and spreading more quickly today due to climate change and unhealthy landscapes. Rather, firefighting aircraft are more often deployed when a fire has already escaped containment and grown into a larger, more expensive disaster. When this happens, typically large and very large air tankers (LATs and VLATs) are used to initiate an indirect attack. Over the course of the indirect attack, LATs and VLATs complete numerous drops of retardant to contain the blaze. Turnaround time between drops often exceeds one to two hours for LATs and VLATs due to the time‐intensive procedures required for loading high volumes of retardants. Turnaround time may also be impacted by basing requirements, as large aircraft must operate out of large airports with retardant loading infrastructure (only ~60 of those west of the Mississippi), as opposed to smaller, regional bases (1,000s of these) that are often closer to fire prone areas. As with all aircraft, turnaround time contributes to the overall length of a wildfire mission, which in turn increases aircraft operating costs. In some situations, incident managers have tried to ameliorate long turnaround times by “filling the gap” with an additional LAT or VLAT to help paint more lines around a fire. Doing so essentially doubles the cost of a suppression mission.

When a small fire does break initial containment efforts, LATs and VLATs play a critical role in suppression, but at a high cost. Significant acquisition and retrofitting costs, plus on‐going maintenance requirements, naturally limits the number of LATs and VLATs that can be made available. There just aren’t that many of these aircraft to meet the supply of fire starts. For example, for the 2020 season, the US Forest Service will have only 18 exclusive use (EU) LAT/VLAT contracts and 17 call‐when‐needed (CWN) contracts for aircraft of the same size9. With such a small number of large aircraft operating from a limited number of bases that have the extensive retardant loading infrastructure, LATs and VLATs cannot be as widely distributed and numerous as smaller, less expensive aircraft across a fire‐prone region. Given the broadening geographic areas requiring potential fire suppression, and the limited number of LATs and VLATs available, there is simply too much ground to cover to ensure a swift, reliable initial attack. This structural challenge for large aircraft, combined with higher operating costs, makes LATs and VLATs primarily, if not solely, suited for indirect attack on large fires, or as suggested in this document, supplemental back‐up to the aerial initial attack efforts. While this type of response will continue to have a highly effective and important role in fighting big blazes, public entities must bolster rapid initial attack capability in order to quickly respond to and contain fire starts in the WUI when they are still small. Otherwise, small wildfires will continue to become large public health disasters that require millions of dollars to suppress and cost the country billions of dollars in devastation and rebuilding.

Most wildfires start as small, containable situations. But when a spark occurs in today’s shifting environment, a rapid, direct and reliable initial response is needed in order to avoid a large, multimillion‐ dollar disaster. By bolstering their initial attack capabilities with purpose‐built firefighting aircraft, fire agencies can knock down fires more quickly, keep them cooler and better support crews on the ground that are putting out the flames. If the same fire agencies could rely on smokejumpers as much as they used to decades ago, the initial attack combo of timely aerial initial attacks assets and supporting smokejumpers on the ground would have outstanding results. Given the large number of wheeled SEATs, Fire Bosses and Type 3 helicopters in the U.S., fire agencies should lead any fire response, regardless of who’s land it has started on, with these aircraft to slow and cool the fire until ground resources arrive. Through leading the initial attack with these aircraft, when a fire start does break the containment efforts of initial attack, these agencies can utilize the scarcer and costly LATs and VLATs to bolster the fight only when they’re needed. This approach makes common sense, fire sense and dollars and cents. Doing so helps divert the large wildfires that are predicted to increase in frequency over the coming years and decades. Key to the success of this model is using money saved from reduced suppression costs to fund forest health programs like forest thinning and prescribed burns that reduce the enormous “inventory” of fuels on the ground that require mitigation efforts.

Prioritize the use of rapid initial attack aircraft
During initial response to a wildfire start, every minute counts. Small, pre‐positioned initial attack aircraft are needed for their ability to quickly get off the ground, arrive at a scene and nimbly maneuver around fire’s frontline to drop continuous loads of water or retardant as soon as possible. These aircraft can quickly reload in between drops, returning to small, regional airports to reload, or scooping directly from a water source nearby the fire situation (Fire Bosses and helicopters). These capabilities combine to support a rapid, reliable initial response to fire starts and small wildfires. Only a handful of initial attack aircraft are in large enough number to provide the necessary capabilities across a broad enough swath of the fire prone landscape during the fire season. They are:

  • Helicopters. Smaller, typically Type 3 helicopters can take off and be en route to a fire in a matter of minutes, making them an effective complement to aerial firefighting arsenals. Helicopters have the advantage of dropping water, water enhancers or retardant based on the situation at hand and can reload from small water sources or staged tanks that can be positioned very close to a fire. The disadvantage of helicopters is load size. Oftentimes a Type 3 helicopter can only carry a bucket that holds 150 to 300 gallons. Even so, these helicopters when deployed in larger numbers can be effective initial responders to a wildfire. Best estimates put the number of these assets in the 100 or so range.
  • Single engine air tankers (SEATs). Like, Type 3 helicopters, SEATs can take off and be en route to a fire situation faster than larger aircraft, a critical capability for successful initial response. Based on the situation at hand, SEATs can carry loads of water, water enhancers or retardant to drop on hot spots and help control and cool the fire situation until ground crews can arrive. Wheeled SEATs carry loads of about 800 gallons which allow for “surgical” drops on a fire, enabling the aircraft to work closer and more safely with ground crews. Wheeled SEATs can operate out of smaller, regional air bases that are often closer to fires in the WUI, cutting down on turnaround time. Based on the historical number of wheeled SEATs that the BLM has contracted with over the years, there are roughly 60 to 75 of these aircraft outfitted to fight fire.
  • Fire Bosses. When equipped with amphibious floats, a wheeled SEAT becomes an 800‐gallon scooping air tanker. When near a water source, an aircraft like the Fire Boss can perform continuous scoops and drops on a fire for 3.5 hours straight – without needing to return to a base to reload during this time. This platform combines the best attributes of helicopters, wheeled SEATs and LATs/VLATs derived from its ability to be contracted cost effectively, be positioned close to fire‐prone areas for fast response and drop as much suppressant volume on a fire in a given hour as any LAT /VLAT. Given that most human settlement is near water, and at least two‐thirds of historical fires in the US have been within ten miles of a scooper‐accessible water source10, there is undeniable value to adding Fire Bosses to firefighting arsenals. There will be 19 Fire Bosses available for the 2020 wildfire season.

Smaller, less costly fixed‐wing and rotary assets enable a widely distributed basing strategy in anticipation of dispersed fire starts. SEATs, whether wheeled or on floats like on a Fire Boss, and Type 3 helicopters are much less expensive to contract and operate than LATs/VLATs and Type 1 and 2 helicopters, allowing departments to deploy more aircraft and create “nodes” of resources in fire prone areas. With more nodes of aircraft in more flexible and more fire prone locations, these assets can dramatically improve the speed, effectiveness and reliability of initial response and extended operations throughout a fire‐prone region. With almost 200 of these types of aircraft ready to go, why aren’t we using these aircraft as the Special Operations assets that they are and backing them up with the power and might of the 35 LATs/VLATs available?

Climate change, expansion of the WUI and today’s unhealthy landscapes are combining to create costlier fires that are burning and spreading much more quickly than they did 20‐30 years ago. In the face of this new world order, public entities must bolster rapid and direct initial air attack capability by incorporating a network of numerous smaller, lower cost, initial‐attack aircraft into aerial firefighting arsenals. Doing so will prepare agencies, and the country, to rapidly respond to and contain fire situations in the WUI before small blazes escape and become multi‐acre, multi‐million‐dollar devastations. Only then can we return critical funds to forest management programs that reduce the fuels accumulating in our wildlands and restore the vitality of our nation’s forests.

1 Jewell, Sally, and Thomas J. Vilsack. The National Strategy ‐ The Final Phase in the Development of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. PDF. Washington D.C.: U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture, April 2014.

2 Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (2009) (enacted).

3 Aerial Firefighting Tutorial.” AHSAFA.org (web log). Accessed February 2018.

4 Keating, Edward G., Andrew R. Morral, Carter C. Price, Dulani Woods, Daniel M. Norton, Christina Panis, Evan Saltzman, and Ricardo Sanchez. “Air Attack Against Wildfires. Report. RAND Corporation.

5 H.R. Rep. No. 08601‐53‐SF (2009).

6 Struzik, Edward. Firestorm. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

7 Smith, Hugh G., Gary J. Sheridan, Patrick N.j. Lane, Petter Nyman, and Shane Haydon. “Wildfire effects on water quality in forest catchments: A review with implications for water supply.” Journal of Hydrology 396, no. 1‐2 (2011): 170‐92. Accessed March 14, 2018. doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2010.10.043.

8 Gabbert, Bill. “Fighting Wildfires During a Pandemic” Fire Aviation (blog), March 19, 2020. Accessed March 25, 2020. 

9 Gabbert, Bill. “Forest Service awards contracts for five exclusive use air tankers” Fire Aviation (blog), March 26, 2020. Accessed March 26, 2020.

10 Keating, Edward G., Andrew R. Morral, Carter C. Price, Dulani Woods, Daniel M. Norton, Christina Panis, Evan Saltzman, and Ricardo Sanchez. “Air Attack Against Wildfires. Report. RAND Corporation.