This is why the United States only has 13 large air tankers

The Forest Service Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry misled Senators during a hearing today

John Phipps, Forest Service
John Phipps, Forest Service, Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry

I was out of town when today’s hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources started this morning about the current wildland fire season. After I was able to access a computer to see the live broadcast at 02:05:00 into the testimony, the Forest Service’s strategy for keeping the air tanker fleet at a minuscule level was on display — again. (Link to the archived video of the hearing)  I have not watched the entire hearing, but here is what struck me about the exchange at 02:05:00.

How would the average person or average Senator interpret what John Phipps, Forest Service Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry, said in response to a question from the Senator from Nevada?

Senator Catherine Masto: (partly unintelligible) …What do you anticipate as the need from the federal partners to increase air tanker support? I know how crucial that is.

John Phipps: We have up to 35 large air tankers. I think it’s important to understand that we have access to in the interagency environment for example the Department of the Interior has 100 Single Engine Aircraft, air tankers, under contract and depending on the situation and the need we have access to that and we are well under way for our planning and preparedness for the upcoming western fire season.

Senator Catherine Masto: Is there anything we can do at the federal level to assist you in that?

John Phipps: Not at this time.

Senator Catherine Masto: That’s good to hear. Thank you.

In other words, there is nothing to see here. Move along.

The average person or average Senator might think, “Holy crap, there are 135 air tankers ready to fight fires today? How could anyone ask for more? This is great!”

And that is why the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts has been stuck at 9 to 21 for the last 15 years. The Forest Service says they have three times the air tankers they actually have, they do not need more, Congress accepts their testimony without question, then moves on to another topic.

The truth is far different. And Mr. Phipps knew it. At best he was intentionally misleading the United States Senators. Some may call it lying. Saying “up to 35” could mean anywhere from zero to 35, and is meaningless. The Senators should have called him on this.

Today there are 13 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. If protests that have been filed do not change anything, after the GAO makes their ruling due by July 15, 2020 there could be 5 more, to bring the total to 18.

A study completed for the Forest Service in 1996 (on page 61) recommended there be 41 large turbine-powered air tankers with a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons, essentially standards that are now the “next-generation” air tankers used today:

"Twenty P-3A, aircraft, ten C-130B aircraft, and 11 C-130E aircraft. This would provide for a [turbine-powered] fleet that is essentially 75% 3,000 gallon capacity and 25% 5,000 gallon capacity."

Single engine air tankers have their place in the firefighter’s tool box, but 700 to 800 gallons per load is far different from the 3,000 to 19,000 gallons carried by large and very large air tankers.

There are additional large air tankers on Call When Needed contracts signed in December with six companies for a total of 35 aircraft. The number “35” is misleading because most if not all of the 13 to 18 large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts also have CWN contracts, meaning they would be removed from the CWN list. So there might only be 17 to 22 on CWN.  And that assumes all could pass the inspections required by this month. In December some of them did not exist as a complete air tanker.

CWN aircraft may or may not be immediately ready during the fire season, with mechanics and crew members available to suddenly drop what they were doing and start flying fires. In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts. But CWN costs are charged to the virtually unlimited fire suppression accounts, so the Forest Service does not care about using taxpayer’s dollars in that manner. And they are not held accountable.

No-shows at the hearing were Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen and Director of Fire and Aviation Shawna Legarza.

I did not see in the hearing any mention of the delays in releasing the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness Study that has been going on for eight years, but maybe I missed it. (Update: the topic was not discussed.) Chief Christiansen has been testifying for the last two years before this committee saying it would be released “soon”. When pressed in February by Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, who last year made his opinion about the delay very clear, she said it would be released “this Spring”. Senator Gardner said, “Before June?” She said, “Yes”. I did not see the Senator in today’s hearing. (Update: Senator Gardner was not at the hearing.)

The announced topic of the hearing was “Wildfire management in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Wildfire Today has coverage of that portion, in which Senators expressed strong opinions about testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) being available for all firefighters.

Study shows correlation between rapid dispatch of air tankers and duration of wildfire

Data suggests duration of fires is shorter when air tankers are deployed early

C-130 air tanker retardant drop Canyon Fire California
A C-130 makes a retardant drop on the Canyon Fire in Napa County, California July 22, 2019. Photo by Kent Porter used with permission.

A study conducted by university researchers found that the speed of arrival of air tankers at a new fire is correlated with fires of shorter duration. Firefighters have known this for decades, but the use of data to confirm it has been lacking. It is a small step, until the eight-year Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study is released.

The research was commissioned by Global SuperTanker Services, the company that operates the 747 SuperTanker that can carry up to 19,200 gallons of fire retardant. Raw data about air tankers that were dispatched to 11,655 fires from 2014 through 2018 was acquired from the U.S. Forest Service by means of a Freedom of Information Act Request.

Keith L. Waters, Ph.D. and Stephen S. Fuller, Ph.D., of George Mason University who specialize in public policy and statistics, conducted the study. The factors they considered included the elapsed time between the first report of a wildfire and the arrival of air tankers at the fire. The duration of the fire was defined as the time between the first report and the arrival of the last air tanker over the fire.

Number Of AT Assignments Duration Of Fires air tankers

The study concluded, for example, that among 11,655 fires in which large air tankers were deployed, fires burned on average for less than one day when tankers were deployed in the first 4-6 hours of a reported fire. Fires in which tankers were deployed after 72 hours burned on average for more than 20 days.

wildfires Initial air tanker arrival

The researchers also analyzed “fires fought by the State of California”, and found that on the 6,278 fires, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had air tankers over the fires within one hour of the first report 96.7 percent of the time. That compares to 37.9 percent of “fires not fought by the State of California”.

This is not a perfect study, of course, just considering fire start times and the arrival of air tankers at the scene, but the researchers were dealing with the limited information produced by the Forest Service as a result of the FOIA. It does not consider the fuels at the point of origin, the weather, availability of air tankers, time of day, ground forces assigned, helicopters working the fire, and other factors. But it does provide food for thought and a category of air tanker data that is not normally seen.

More detailed conclusions could be reached if, for example there were a dozen data collectors on the ground and in the air at numerous fires for eight years observing objectives and outcomes for individual retardant/water drops; terrain, slope, fuel type; fire spread characteristics; weather conditions and other environmental factors that may influence retardant drop effectiveness. In other words, exactly what the Forest Service has been doing in the still secret Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) study that began in 2012.

The AFUE study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires, in order to better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft.

In hearings before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in both 2018 and 2019 the Forest Service told the Senators the results of the study would be released “soon”. In another hearing this week before the Committee Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen again said it would be released “soon”. When pressed by Colorado Senator Sen. Cory Gardner, who last year made his opinion about the delay very clear, she said it would be released “this Spring”. Senator Gardner said, “Before June?”. She said, “Yes”.  A clip from that exchange is below.

Link to the entire hearing

If detailed, unfiltered, and unbiased results of the study are not released in June, the Committee could subpoena the information.


Dr. Gabbert’s prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.