Above: Air tanker 07, a P2V, on the Myrtle Fire, July 9, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
In 2015 and 2016 the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) study collected data on 7,000 drops of water or fire retardant on wildfires. This is partially in response to demands by Congress and the Government Accountability Office to provide actual data to justify the huge expense of using helicopters and air tankers on fires. Anecdotal information generally indicates that aircraft are effective under certain conditions to slow but not extinguish fires, however something more conclusive is needed when answering questions in front of a Congressional committee making decisions about allocating hundreds of millions of dollars.
It will be several years before data is released about the effectiveness of aerial resources.
Above: P2V air tankers at Rapid City Air Tanker Base during the Myrtle Fire, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
The federal land management agencies spend many millions of dollars flying aircraft over fires dropping retardant or water. When Congress and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ask how the numbers in the annual request for aerial firefighting funds were determined, they are often not satisfied with the answers, which may appear to come off the top of someone’s head. How many air tankers and helicopters do you need? How did you come up with those numbers? Are air tankers effective? How do you know?
The number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service has varied substantially in the last 15 years, from 44 in 2002 to 9 in 2013. In 2015 and 2016 there were 21 when the seasons started, plus approximately half a dozen or so on Call When Needed contracts in 2016. This year the numbers will not change much except for a few more that could be on CWN when a new round of contracts is awarded in a few months.
As we often say, aircraft do not put out fires. Under ideal conditions they can slow or temporarily stop the spread of a portion of a fire to enable ground personnel to move in and establish a fireline on the perimeter. Most wildland firefighters believe aircraft are an essential tool in their toolbox and can be very effective if used correctly. Those opinions are based on their experience on the fireground, however it is difficult to transfer that knowledge to decision-makers in Washington.
Expand efforts to collect information on aircraft performance and effectiveness to include all types of firefighting aircraft in the federal fleet;
Enhance collaboration between the agencies and with stakeholders in the fire aviation community to help ensure that agency efforts to identify the number and type of firefighting aircraft they need reflect the input of all stakeholders in the fire aviation community; and
Subsequent to the completion of the first two recommendations, update the agencies’ strategy documents for providing a national firefighting aircraft fleet to include analysis based on information on aircraft performance and effectiveness and to reflect input from stakeholders throughout the fire aviation community.
Under pressure from Congress and the GAO to justify the aerial firefighting program, in 2012 the U.S. Forest Service began a program to develop metrics and collect data to document and quantify the effectiveness of aircraft in assisting firefighters on the ground.
The new Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) program gathered data from 2012 to 2014. Those first two years, USFS spokesperson Jennifer Jones told us, were preliminary to the full study:
That was done mainly as a methods development process and is not sufficient to provide statistically defensible analysis and results supporting the objectives identified by senior U.S. Forest Service leadership or GAO.
During the next two-year period, 2015 through 2016, data was collected on approximately 7,000 drops from more than 130 fires.
Mrs. Jones explained:
Since this data includes fires from many jurisdictions, fuel, weather and terrain conditions, the process of statistically characterizing the sample in terms of the population it represents requires merging data from many different sources. This work is ongoing, even for the 2015 data, but study management expects the process to be much quicker for subsequent years.
The USFS claims they have accomplished the first two items on GAO’s list regarding collaboration between the agencies. The last task is years away from completion. They plan to publish a peer-reviewed paper soon that will detail the methodology being used. Some early results of the study are expected later this year when they expect to release annual use summaries for 2015 and 2016 during 2017. Additional use summaries will come out several months following each data collection season.
After several more years when the sample size and statistical confidence increases, Mrs. Jones said, they expect to release findings related to the effectiveness and probability of success of aerial resources.
We asked Gary Barrett for his opinion about the AFUE study. Known as “Bean” to our readers, he is a former naval aviator and has contributed articles to this website. He brings a different background and point of view to the air tanker issue. Below are his comments:
Why is it that Australia seems to encourage ops analysis and its application to firefighting and here in the US we haven’t caught up with the concept. Until US ops analysis gets going, there will be no definitive answers on the utility of US air tankers and how they are utilized.
Even New South Wales in Australia has an opinion on the utility of heavy air tankers and has initiated a study on large air tankers operating in Australia.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published the results of a study that collected information about aviation-related fatalities of wildland firefighters between 2000 and 2013. You can see the entire paper HERE (see page 793), but most of it is below.
Aviation-Related Wildland Firefighter Fatalities — United States, 2000–2013
July 31, 2015 / 64(29);793-796
Corey R. Butler, MS1, Mary B. O’Connor, MS2, Jennifer M. Lincoln, PhD2 (Author affiliations at end of text)
Airplanes and helicopters are integral to the management and suppression of wildfires, often operating in high-risk, low-altitude environments. To update data on aviation-related wildland firefighting fatalities, identify risk factors, and make recommendations for improved safety, CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) analyzed reports from multiple data sources for the period 2000–2013. Among 298 wildland firefighter fatalities identified during 2000–2013, 78 (26.2%) were aviation-related occupational fatalities that occurred during 41 separate events involving 42 aircraft. Aircraft crashes accounted for 38 events. Pilots, copilots, and flight engineers represented 53 (68%) of the aviation-related fatalities. The leading causes of fatal aircraft crashes were engine, structure, or component failure (24%); pilot loss of control (24%); failure to maintain clearance from terrain, water, or objects (20%); and hazardous weather (15%). To reduce fatalities from aviation-related wildland firefighting activities, stringent safety guidelines need to be followed during all phases of firefighting, including training exercises. Crew resource management techniques, which use all available resources, information, equipment, and personnel to achieve safe and efficient flight operations, can be applied to firefighting operations.
Airplanes and helicopters play a major role in the control of wildland (forest, brush, and grass) fires. These aircraft are used to deliver equipment and supplies, deploy and transport firefighters, conduct reconnaissance, scout and direct operations, and deliver fire retardant or water. During the past decade, the United States has experienced an increase in the size, frequency, and severity of wildfires, likely attributable to buildup of flammable vegetation, decline in snowpack, and human development in the wildland urban interface (1,2). If these conditions continue, more fire response workers will be needed, and the demand on aviation to support these efforts will increase.
To identify risk factors for aviation-related wildland firefighter activities, NIOSH reviewed and extracted case reports from the Fire Administration Firefighter Fatality surveillance system, the National Fire Protection Association Fire Incident Data Organization database, the National Wildland Coordinating Group’s Safety Gram, and the National Transportation Safety Board aviation database. A wildland firefighter fatality was defined as any death that occurred in a paid or unpaid wildland firefighter, contractor, aviation crew member or support staff, inmate, or member of the military while performing official wildland fire duties, including operations (fire or nonfire incident), responding to or returning from a wildland fire incident, or other officially assigned duties.* Other emergency response workers who were fatally injured at wildfires were excluded from this analysis. The number of flight hours for the U.S. Forest Service was used as a denominator to indicate the use of aviation resources because flight hours from other agencies or workforce numbers were not available.
During 2000–2013, a total of 298 wildland firefighter fatalities were identified, averaging 21 fatalities per year. Among these, 78 (26.2%) were caused by activities associated with aviation. The number of aviation- related fatalities decreased during 2007–2013, compared with 2000–2006 (Table 1). Of the persons who died in aviation-related activities, 76 (97%) were male, and 53 (68%) were flight crew members (e.g., pilots, copilots, and flight engineers). The average age of flight crew victims was 49 years (range = 20–66 years) and of nonflight crew victims was 33 years (range = 19–54 years). The most common occupation of nonflight crew members was firefighter. Most victims were employed by aerial contractors (42), followed by the federal government (15), state government agencies (10), ground contractors (seven), and the military (four). Twenty-five (32%) of the aviation-related fatalities occurred in California, eight occurred in Nevada, and seven in Idaho (Figure).
(UPDATE at 9 p.m. MDT, May 15, 2015: After “Phil” left a comment below saying “Director Cooke selected Ms.[Melissa] Lineberger as the Center’s Director on Wednesday”, we checked with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control to confirm, and it is true. She is a licensed attorney who joined the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control in 2013 as a policy analyst before taking her interim position last August.)
(Originally published at 2:11 p.m. MDT, May 15, 2015:)
This week in Rifle, Colorado there was a ribbon cutting for the ceremonial opening of Colorado’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting. Later this summer the Center will be working out of a facility at the Garfield County Rifle Airport.
LINEBERGER: As the director, I’ll be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the center, ensuring that we are meeting our goals as far as completing projects on time, communicating with the legislature to ensure that they understand what we’re doing, and then also being involved as a spokesperson to the Colorado firefighting community, make sure that they understand when we have a new tactic, technique or procedure, understand how that can be implemented and how that can help them, and then provide whatever training is necessary. [Are] demonstrations the best way to go? Or is it sitting down in a classroom and having them see the process that we went through to get to a solution? I’ll be in charge of overseeing all that and making sure the staff is as excited as I am for this opportunity and is moving forward in the right direction.
AHM: What projects are you looking at right now?
LINEBERGER: Some of the initial projects that I’ve already started doing research on [are] night operations. Right now we’re not doing bucket drops from the air at night on fires because 30-40 years ago there were some high profile helicopter crashes when they were trying to fly at night. But night-vision goggle technology has come a long way. People have been scared to re-implement [night-time aerial bucket drops] because of the safety issue. So what we want to do is look into the safety, talk to the folks who are doing night flying currently with the National Guard and with some other organizations, and try to figure our how we can get night operations on our fires here in Colorado. There’s a lot of benefits to fighting fire at night, the smoke lays down, and there’s just opportunities for us to attack those fires 24 hours a day from the air.
… the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control expect to complete a job description for the director soon, followed by a “rigorous” selection process that could take two or three months. After that, they can began hiring the remaining eight full-time staff members, who will occupy an existing building that is being vacated by Garfield County.
The following is written by Gary Barrett, also known as “Bean”, a former naval aviator who has contributed an article or two previously and regularly leaves comments on the website. He brings a different background and point of view to the air tanker issue.
An illustration from the report on air initial attack alone:
Combined attack vs integrated attack:
If the USFS had a similar document on the effectiveness of initial attack in 5 fuel hazard types by tanker/ crew arrival time [page 3 and 4 of referenced technical paper] , they would have been able to defend their requirements for tankers and ground equipment to congress, determine basing requirements, and contract availability requirements by type.
From previous experience in targeting for Navy tactical strikes, it is critical that the effectiveness of what you drop is known scientifically and described mathematically. The military has determined a munition effectiveness probability number for everything it has. It tells you how many aircraft of what type with what munitions you send on a strike against a particular type of target. The Naval Strike Warfare Center in Fallon NV stood up in the mid 1980’s to teach the tactical carrier Navy how to fight smarter, not harder … Google “Torpedo 8” and look at the battle of Midway to see a classic example of where fighting harder got us. We had plenty of other later examples of the same fight harder problem that indicated we were not a “learning organization”. We tended to use technology to enable us to do more of what we always used to do [fight harder].
It seems to me that the issue with using aircraft to fight fires in the US is in pretty much in the same place that Navy TACAIR was before the Strike Warfare Center stood up in the mid 1980’s. The usual answer from today’s firefighting community seems to be “fight harder” and more is better. You can’t fight smarter until you get smarter. If that means setting up canned experiments in controlled burns and collecting data, then do it. More contract studies with the dearth of information available today are useless.
The firefighting community should develop formal definitions of probability of success for each type of air tanker based on lets say 5 fuel types or hazard conditions, types of retardant, terrain slope, release parameters, and coverage levels or they will never get where they need to go when it comes time to decide how many tankers of what type carrying what kind of retardant, based where under what kind of contract is required to achieve a certain probability of success. When the time comes, you use what you have but if you have a “smarter program”, there is a better chance of having the right stuff where you need it when you need it.
Rhetorical question: What is the probability of success for a line of X level coverage of retardant [pick the type] on fuel hazard class Y in terrain of slope Z? Can’t answer? Your only solution then is to “fight harder and more is better”.
Congress and GAO have already demonstrated that they aren’t interested in the “trust me I’m a career firefighter with a zillion hours of experience and we need more” argument. One could say that the industry with the best track record for getting money from congress is the military-industrial complex and they never use the “trust me” argument.
Getting smarter enables the profession to escape from the apprentice … journeyman … master training cycle that requires a lifetime of experience, critically depends on the questionably cohesive informal knowledge held by the various “masters” and significantly limits the numbers that can be effectively trained in the profession. For all I know, if more was understood about retardant effectiveness under various conditions, different more effective tactics could be developed to deal with wildfires. Better ways of getting the job done could be developed. Firefighters could fight smarter not harder.
Where’s the published US tactics manual for aerial firefighting? It could start with the two graphs above and grow from there. All ex military aviators lived by their tactics manual for their particular aircraft. It explained what you did with the aircraft after you learned how to fly it.
This video, featuring Shirley Zylstra, the Wildland Fire Chemicals Program Leader for the U.S. Forest Service, demonstrates the effectiveness of long term fire retardant dropped by air tankers, and occasionally by helicopters. In the video that was uploaded to YouTube yesterday, Ms. Zylstra explains how the chemical works even after the water evaporates by interfering with the combustion process.
The video is extremely low resolution, 240p, and looks like it was recorded with a flip phone, but it gets the message across.