Pandemic makes it difficult to obtain raw materials to produce fire retardant

In an unusual move, Forest Service purchases 3.8 million gallons before the busy part of the wildfire season

Retardant mix
Dry retardant mix that the Royal Australian Air Force transported from the U.S. to Australia in January, 2020.

For decades the U.S. Forest Service has had long term contracts with the company now known as Perimeter Solutions to supply, mix, store, and load long-term fire retardant in air tankers at dozens of air tanker bases around the United States.

Disruptions in international logistics and shipping due to COVID-19 have complicated the acquisition of raw materials required to produce wildland firefighting retardant products, such as Phos-Chek. Typically Perimeter Solutions has ordered the materials on an as needed basis depending on the demand at the time and the rate at which it is used. This is sometimes called Just In Time Inventory.

The contract the FS has with Perimeter specifies payment by the gallon as it is used. But in an unusual move, the agency recently purchased 3.8 million gallons of retardant worth $15.6 million — an average cost of $4.12 per gallon, which includes mixing, storing, and loading onto aircraft. Between 2013 and 2017 the FS used an average of 12.2 million gallons of fire retardant each year.

Here is how the current situation was described in an April 29, 2020 internal email by Caleb Berry, a FS Washington Office Aviation Management Specialist:

Perimeter Solutions requires raw materials from international sources to produce wildland firefighting retardant products. Typically, Perimeter Solutions orders raw materials over a period of time as fire demand increases and warehoused retardant is used / purchased. COVID-19 disrupted international logistics by threatening supply chain continuity and overseas shipping.  In order to create a reliable stock pile of retardant for the 2020 fire season, raw materials had to be purchased immediately and moved to the United States. The immediate, large raw materials purchase required  a significant funds out lay  prior to seasonal fire retardant purchase and commensurate risk assumed by Perimeter Solutions. As a primary consumer of fire retardant, it is in Forest Service best interest to insure availability of retardant products and vendor stability. This dual purpose was achieved by an advance purchase of first tier retardant at all Forest Service full service retardant contract line items.

Airtanker bases will continue to order retardant services and products on an “as required” basis. The contractor will warehouse product and materials until delivery is requested.

We asked Edward Goldberg, CEO of Perimeter Solutions, about this new purchasing arrangement. He responded in an email:

Perimeter Solutions has been making preparations for the upcoming season for several months.  That includes purchasing raw materials, producing finished retardant, and stocking distribution and using locations. Perimeter Solutions is fully capable and willing to do what is needed to ensure a reliable supply of retardant for the full year.  The USFS decided that purchasing additional safety stock was prudent as part of their overall COVID response.

Mr. Goldberg said the quantity that the FS purchased, “represents a small fraction of what is typically used.”

Perimeter Solutions may not be familiar to firefighters as a supplier of Phos-Chek. That is because the product has been marketed under the names of five companies since the 1960s, some of which are difficult to remember:

1963-1997: Monsanto
1997-2000: Solutia
2000-2005: Astaris
2005-2018: ICL
2018-present: Perimeter Solutions

While the ownership of the company has changed hands many times, Mr. Goldberg said,  “[T]he people in Perimeter have been part of the Phos-Chek business for many years. Decades in many cases. Same great people, same great products, same great service.”

Redding retardant August 7, 2014
Bags of dry retardant mix at the Redding Air Tanker Base, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Updated Forest Service air tanker schedule

All 13 under contract are expected to be working by May 19

Air Tanker Schedule April 29 2020
USFS

The U.S. Forest Service has updated their schedule for large air tankers — the last one we had was dated March 14, 2020.  This latest April 29 version still does not identify all tankers that will be working. Missing are two Neptune BAe-146s and one Aero Flite RJ85.

Oddly, they still have not corrected what appears to be two errors showing an RJ85 and a BAe-146 scheduled to begin their estimated Mandatory Availability Period (MAP) in May of last year.

According to this schedule, by Monday 10 of the 13 air tankers should have started their MAP — assuming the May 2, 2019 date for an Aero Flite tanker is supposed to be May 2, 2020, and the May 13, 2019 date for a Neptune tanker is actually May 13, 2020. All 13 are expected to be within their MAP by May 19.

This schedule includes Next Generation 1.0 and 2.0 contracts, but leaves out 3.0 since it is on hold after being protested by Neptune and 10 Tanker, companies that were ignored in this last round in which only five tankers received awards. Three companies received tentative contracts — Erickson Aero Tanker for two MD-87s, Aero Flite for two RJ85s, and Coulson for one 737. No very large air tankers received contracts in this last round, but we’ll have to see if that changes when the General Accountability Office rules on the protests. Their decision is due by July 15, 2020.

That means — only 13 Forest Service large air tankers are on contract for the entire United States until the GAO decision, after which the fleet could increase to 18. Each aircraft has one day off each week, so on most days two or three will be unavailable, dropping the numbers to about 11 and 16. If they stick to these numbers fast, aggressive, initial attack with overwhelming force is not going to be a reality as often as needed during this COVID-19 pandemic when there may be a reduction in firefighting capacity from ground forces, leading to more smoke in our atmosphere. New research suggests that the smoke firefighters breathe on the front lines of wildfires is putting them at greater risk from the COVID-19 virus, with potentially lethal effects.

These numbers of air tankers could be increased if:

  1. Congress adequately funds the aerial firefighting program.
  2. More than 5 air tankers receive Next Gen 3.0 contracts; (15 instead of 5).
  3. The Forest Service aggressively activates Call When Needed air tankers.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Robert. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

US Forest Service may contract for up to 30 more helicopters

helicopter HAI HELI-EXPO arrival landing anaheim california
A Eurocopter Super Puma AS 332L arrives at HAI HELI-EXPO in Anaheim, California January 24, 2020. It is registered to Horizon Helicopters in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service has published a solicitation asking for bids that could add up to 30 helicopters to the firefighting fleet this summer.

Published April 22, the solicitation has a very quick turnaround date, with offers due April 27, 2020. In order to be eligible for this opportunity, parties applying must already have one of the 68 current Call When Needed agreements in place.

The Forest Service is asking for pricing proposals for Type 1 and 2 helicopters which would be available for a 90-day Mandatory Availability Period commencing on either June 1st or June 15th.

As we wrote April 22, the four-year exclusive use contracts for Type 1 firefighting helicopters issued in 2016 expire April 30. Since new contracts based on the solicitation issued November 15, 2019 have not yet been awarded the Forest Service has given 30-day contracts to a handful of vendors. The agency has refused to provide to us any details about the 30-day contracts.

Since many of their procurement actions for firefighting aircraft are protested, delaying activation for several months, these 90-day contracts for up to 30 helicopters may be a safety net in case of a protest. If a company receives one of the Type 1 EU contracts, the Forest Service “will then remove your awarded helicopter from consideration for this one-time [90-day] opportunity.”

On April 6, 2018 the Forest Service awarded EU contracts for 34 Type 2 firefighting helicopters. The duration was for one base year through April 30, 2019, with the possibility of 3 one-year renewal option periods. The U.S. Forest Service has shown by how they manage the air tanker and Type 1 helicopter contracts that the option periods are definitely not a sure thing after cutting those aircraft during recent optional years.

This possible increase in the number of helicopters is presumably a response to what could a diminished firefighting capability during the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 23 Fire Aviation called for a large increase in the numbers of aviation resources:

Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Until that takes place and the aircraft are sitting on ramps at air tanker bases, all 17 of the large air tankers on call when needed contracts need to be activated this summer. Right now, only one large air tanker is working.

Several years ago the number of the largest helicopters on EU contracts, Type 1, were cut from 34 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50. Until that happens 22 CWN Type 1 helicopters should be activated this summer.

If this temporary increase in the Type 1 and Type 2 helicopter fleets actually occurs, unimpeded by contract protests, it is the right thing to do.

The next action that needs to be taken is a similar increase in the fixed wing fleet this summer.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Sean. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Response from a reader about the use of firefighting aircraft during a pandemic

air tanker 103 Thomas Fire drops California
Tanker 103, an MD-87, drops on the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, California December 13, 2017. USFS photo by Kari Greer.

We received the text below in an email from one of our regular readers, Bean, who gave us permission to use it here. He wrote in response to the article, “During a pandemic aircraft may need to be used on wildfires more aggressively”, when it first appeared on Wildfiretoday.com.


Well done!  In the military we would have classified what you are asking for as a “force multiplier”.

Since your article on the Foxton Fire in JEFFCO, CO the Elk Creek FD Chief shut down our wildfire module. One member of the team came down with a cough, fever, and headache after the first day of the fire. The Chief sent them all home to self isolate for two weeks instead of allowing a possible infection to spread to the rest of the department. So right now the good news is that we just had a heavy snowstorm. The bad news is that we [Elk Creek] have no wildfire module for two weeks. No word on the sick firefighter yet.

I realize you write about fire fighting but another issue causing concern is that most small rural districts, ours included, also run the local EMS and ambulance service and as a result, our firefighter paramedics and EMT’s are even more at risk of exposure to CV.

In the small districts up here we are already short of fire fighters [paid full time and volunteers] and it is the small districts that provide most of the IA capability in Colorado.  If we define IA using your Rx for controlling fire size, we need a maximum effort in minimum time. We need the one resource that is not available … more people. The impact of the CV is to further reduce our most scarce fire fighting resource and if the CV impact is significant, Colorado is in trouble later this year when it warms up and dries out. Air support can increase the effectiveness of our available people.

So that gets us to where your article comes in, if we can’t get more firefighters, we have to fight smarter not harder using our available firefighters.  Enough air support can make a significant impact on the efficiency of our available firefighters and can offset the shortage of firefighters. The only problem is that most of the fixed wing type 1 air resources aren’t really capable of immediate response and providing direct close air support to the ground attack on the fire. I submit that for the maximum effectiveness, in this situation that the air resources required to augment fast IA are probably rotary wing. They can operate closer and drop with higher accuracy in direct support of ground personnel with relative safety compared to Type-1 fixed wing and their reload-return cycle is much quicker especially for dippers. Of course we cannot know this for a fact since the US Forest Service AFUE study has been a year out for several years and evidence is anecdotal except for the excellent Australian study on air tanker effectiveness that underscores the requirement for air support and immediate IA.

CWN contracts are useless for rapid IA support so what seems to be required to offset the impact of CV on personnel availability at least in our neck of the woods is to focus on EU contracts for rotary wing support in significant numbers to provide immediate augmentation of IA personnel and fixed wing Type 1’s to back up the IA effort if indirect attack is required.

During a pandemic aircraft may need to be used on wildfires more aggressively

747 air tanker Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A 747 air tanker drops on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

This article was first published on Wildfire Today, March 19, 2020.


Fighting wildland fires as we have known it is likely to go through a transformation during the next 6 to 18 months. As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to reach into more segments of the daily human existence the way we suppress wildfires may have to be modified.

Obstacles to firefighting

At a White House briefing on March 16 the President and Dr. Anthony Fauci said people should not assemble in groups larger than 10 and recommended “Social distancing”–  spacing between individuals needs to be at least 6 feet. Being near any infected person, even if it is just one person, runs the risk that droplets expelled from their mouth or nose, or viruses on their face, hands, or clothing could be transferred to others. Without widespread testing, it is impossible to know if someone is infected without being symptomatic. The symptoms, if they occur at all, may not develop for days.

firefighters Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A hand crew of firefighters on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

Social distancing would be extremely difficult to maintain while traveling to or extinguishing a fire. Wildland firefighters are trained to never work alone, and are always in groups ranging from 2 on a small Type 6 engine, 20 on a hand crew, and hundreds or thousands while assigned to a large fire. On Tuesday multiple engine crews battled three fires that burned 50 acres near Foxton in Jefferson County, Colorado about 20 miles southwest of Denver. On March 6, 286 firefighters responded to a 20-acre fire in the Cleveland National Forest near Lakeland Village in southern California. In 2017 more than 8,500 firefighters were assigned to the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in southern California.

Time

This is not like dealing with climate change that over years and decades has slowly caused fires to grow larger. A rapidly growing pandemic that kills approximately 0.7 to 3.0 percent of those infected means we don’t have the luxury of time to come up with solutions. A new scientific report warns that without action by the government and individuals to slow the spread and suppress new cases, 2.2 million people in the United States could die.

The March 1 outlook for wildland fire potential predicted higher than average fire activity during March and April in the coastal areas of Central and Southern California.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE

Prevent fires

It is possible that with social isolation the number of human-caused ignitions will decrease. Or, will campfires in the woods increase when folks get cabin fever and have more time on their hands? Fire prevention efforts have to increase, with more public service announcements and prevention officers in the field.

Reduce the number of fires that escape initial attack

The fewer large fires we have that require hundreds or thousands of firefighters to work together, the safer firefighters will be from additional virus exposure. This would also reduce evacuations that can result in refugees assembling in large numbers. An infected person forced to leave their self-quarantine to fend around for housing is a danger to society.

How to keep fires from becoming large

There is no silver bullet that can guarantee a fire will not escape initial attack, but the most effective tactic is:

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

This means, if there is a report of a fire, don’t just send one unit out to verify unless you have a very good reason to suspect it is a false alarm.  Dispatch overwhelming force — engines, crews, helicopters, and air tankers. This is not inexpensive, but can save millions of dollars if it keeps a fire from growing large.

The need for more firefighting resources

Congress is considering a proposal to spend $1 trillion dollars on a stimulus package to combat the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a proposal obtained by NBC News. A trillion is a number that is nearly impossible for me to comprehend. It is a thousand billion. A billion is a thousand million.

If more firefighters were hired it could make it possible to have healthy forces in reserve when 20-person crews or 5-person engines have to be quarantined when one crew member tests positive for the virus or if they are exposed while fighting a fire. It could also enhance the ability to attack new fires with overwhelming force.

Since firefighters assembling in groups to suppress a fire can put them at risk of spreading COVID-19, we need to rethink our tactics. This could include making far greater use of aerial firefighting. It should become standard operating procedure to have multiple large air tankers and helicopters safely and quickly attacking a new fire from the air, far from any people on the ground infected with the virus.

firefighter Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A firefighter on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 25, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on federal exclusive use (EU) contracts. Last year and at the beginning of this year there are only 13. That is a ridiculous number even in a slow fire season like last year when 20 percent of the requests for large air tankers were unfilled. The number of acres burned in the lower 48 states in 2019 was the least since 2004.

There are so few large airtankers on EU contracts that dispatchers have to guess where fires will erupt and move the aircraft around, like whack-a-mole.

The U.S. Forest Service says they can have “up to” 18 large air tankers on EU contract, but that will only be possible if and when they finally make awards based on the Next-Generation 3.0 exclusive use air tanker solicitation that was first published November 19, 2018. There are an additional 17 large air tankers on call when needed (CWN) contracts that can be activated, but at hourly and daily rates much higher than those on EU.

If multiple large air tankers and helicopters could attack new fires within 20 to 30 minutes we would have fewer large fires.

Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Until that takes place and the aircraft are sitting on ramps at air tanker bases, all 17 of the large air tankers on call when needed contracts need to be activated this summer. Right now, only one large air tanker is working.

Several years ago the number of the largest helicopters on EU contracts, Type 1, were cut from 34 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50. Until that happens 22 CWN Type 1 helicopters should be activated this summer.

“Air tankers don’t put out fires”

We often say, “air tankers don’t put out fires”, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area. During these unprecedented circumstances, we may at times need to rely much more on aerial firefighting than in the past.

All firefighters need to be tested for the virus at regular intervals

If firefighting crews have to isolated and put on the sidelines because one member develops COVID-19 symptoms, it is likely that they had already been shedding the virus for days, possibly infecting others.

firefighters Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
Firefighters on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 27, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

The small town of Vò in northern Italy where the first COVID-19 death occurred in the country, has become a case study that demonstrates how scientists might neutralize the spread of the disease. On March 6 they began a program to test all 3,300 inhabitants of the town twice, including asymptomatic people. Those without symptoms that tested positive were isolated, as were those with symptoms of course, and since then there have been no new cases.

This lesson is being learned. San Miguel County in Colorado, the location of Telluride, will be the first county in the U.S. to test every resident.

If we expect to maintain wildland firefighting capability, every firefighter must be tested on a regular basis. This can greatly reduce the risk when they gather in large numbers to suppress a fire.

Other key members of the wildland firefighting community must also be tested in order to maintain the viability of the system. This would include pilots, aircraft mechanics, air tanker base crews, helitack crews, dispatchers, members of Incident Management Teams, and contractors that supply firefighting equipment and services, especially caterers.

Should we still manage “limited suppression” fires?

In the last 10 years we have seen more wildfires allowed to spread with only limited suppression. These fires can persist for months while they are being baby sat by firefighters. Yes, there are benefits to the natural resources to allow fire to run its natural course. Fewer personnel are used early in the fire, but the amount of time involved results in them being tied up for an extended period. And if a month or two into it, after it has grown large and has to be suppressed, then you will need a huge commitment of forces. If firefighting resources are extremely limited by the effects of the pandemic, the second and third order effects of this strategy need to be thoroughly examined by smart managers before they decide to not aggressively attack a new fire.

Area Command Teams activated

Three Area Command Teams  (ACT) have been activated in the United States to assist in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The delegation of authority directs them to coordinate with Federal, State, local, and Tribal officials to identify issues related to COVID-19 and wildland fire response. They will develop fire response plans for maintaining dispatching, initial attack, and extended attack capability. The ACTs will also develop procedures or protocols for mitigating exposure to COVID-19 during an incident, and for responding in areas with known exposure to COVID-19.

This is an important and necessary step. We are in uncharted territory, and no one has ever fought wildland fires under these conditions, at least in the United States.

Table top exercises or simulations

They may already exist, but if not, table top exercises could be very useful for Regional and National Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups to work through the steps of allocating firefighting resources that in a worst case scenario could become scarce on an unprecedented scale. Maybe a billionaire or video game designer will develop a computer-based simulation for this purpose.

Yes, this is a lot — 40 EU large air tankers, 50 EU Type 1 helicopters, initial attack with overwhelming force, and testing for everyone involved in firefighting.

We need to be in this for the long haul. No one knows for sure, but scientists are thinking that this new virus will ebb and flow. The spread may peak every few weeks and it may or may not slow in the summer, but will most likely peak again in the fall and winter well into 2021. There is no known cure and it will be at least 12 to 18 months before a vaccine is available.

But what is the alternative? If our firefighters are isolated, quarantined, or deceased, there could be a lot of smoke in the skies this year that will exacerbate respiratory diseases being suffered by many.