Forest Service needs to be more transparent while spending hundreds of millions contracting for firefighting aircraft

Fifteen large federal air tankers is not enough for the United States

CAL Fire air tanker 118 C-130
CAL FIRE air tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. The Forest Service was given seven of these HC-130Hs formerly owned by the Coast Guard in order to convert them to air tankers, but lost interest and regifted them to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Photo by John Vogel March 4, 2020. CAL FIRE will be getting them in the air over the next couple of years.

–Opinion–

Now that the U.S. Forest Service has activated two Call When Needed air tankers, there will be 15 large and very large federal air tankers on duty.

For the United States.

In 2002 there were 44 on exclusive use contracts. After two air tankers crashed that year killing the five that were on board, the Forest Service weeded out the World War II aircraft and beefed up the safety standards. During the next three years the numbers dropped from 44 to 18, and kept falling until the fleet barely existed in 2013, leaving only 9.  The air tanker fleet has not been rebuilt — 18 years should have been sufficient time.

Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019. Revised 2-24-2020. Fire Aviation.

It is possible that the Forest Service will bring on more CWN tankers in the next month, but this year the agency will not disclose any information publicly about their aerial firefighting contracts that consume hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. Fire Director Shawna Legarza (during her last month in the job) and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen need to shift out of their secret mode and be far more transparent. If they were proud of what they were doing it would be logical to make their decisions public. I would recommend an investigation by the Department’s Inspector General, but recently five IGs in the federal government have been fired and replaced with political lap dogs.

There needs to be accountability for how these huge decisions are made and how taxpayers’ dollars are being used. Are they being spent wisely? When will they release the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness Study that has been going on for eight years? Launched in 2012 at a cost of about $1.3 million annually, the study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft used on wildfires. In FY 2017 for example, the most recent year with exact numbers available, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If ever completed the AFUE study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient, and effective tools for the job.

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 in February of this year after Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican, asked when it would be made public, Chief Christiansen at first said “soon”, and when pressed by the Senator said it would be released before June, 2020.

This week I asked Forest Service spokesperson Stanton Florea when it would be released, and he said “soon”.  When I asked him again for a date, he said, “We expect to have it available soon, Bill.” They have learned they can get away with stonewalling Congress and taxpayers –and don’t care.

One knowledgeable person I talked with in D.C. thinks AFUE may never be released, which would not be without precedent. When the Forest Service did not like the recommendations in an air tanker study conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2012, they refused to release it, even after Wildfire Today filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Eventually the Rand Corporation made it public. If it is not released, Chief Christiansen and Director Legarza would be following the example set by former Fire and Aviation Director Tom Harbour about refusing to make taxpayer-funded air tanker studies public.

The leaders in the Forest Service, Senators, Representatives, and the personnel in the White House need to accept responsibility for the sorry state of our fixed wing air tanker fleet. They are the ones that introduce and pass legislation, or allow it to be introduced, that determines the amount of funding allocated for fire aviation. When they write letters, little is accomplished. Actions speak louder than a written word.

You can't fight wildfires on the cheap.

During the COVID-19 pandemic while our firefighters have one hand tied behind their backs, it is important to spend our money wisely and support our firefighters on the ground with rapid attacks on emerging wildfires using overwhelming force from both the air and the ground. (see Dr. Gabbert’s Prescription , June 26, 2012)

Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote March 19, 2020 in an article titled, “Fighting wildfires during a pandemic.”


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.

40 Large Air Tankers

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.

50 Type 1 Helicopters

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 additional CWN Type 1 helicopters should be activated this summer.

We often say, “air tankers don’t put out fires”. 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. If firefighters are not nearby, in most cases the flames will eventually burn through or around the retardant. During these unprecedented circumstances brought on by the pandemic, we may at times need to rely much more on aerial firefighting than in the past. And there must be an adequate number of firefighters available to supplement the work done from the air.  It must go both ways. Firefighters in the air and the ground support each other.

Shawna Legarza talks about aerial firefighting

The U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation discusses the wildfires in 2017 and the outlook for aerial firefighting in 2018

Shawna Legarza fire aviation

Above: Shawna Legarza speaks at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018.

(Originally published at 8:18 PDT March 13, 2018)

Shawna Legarza, the U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation, gave a presentation at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018. She said we are no longer experiencing fire seasons — fires now occur year round. Firefighters in Southern California have been saying that for a couple of decades, but the epidemic is spreading.

After her talk we spoke with her for a couple of minutes before she had to leave for a meeting in Arizona. We asked her about the firefighting aircraft that will be available in 2018.

(The video can also be seen at YouTube)

Shawna Legarza fire aviation
Shawna Legarza speaks at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018.