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.

We asked Forest Service Chief why air tankers were cut by 35%

P2V air tanker 07

Above: Tanker 07, a P2V, drops retardant on the Red Canyon Fire nine miles southwest of Pringle, SD July 9, 2016.

The U.S. Forest Service has cut the number of large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year by 35 percent, from 20 to 13. We asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, why, and she responded in writing Tuesday:

The reduction in Exclusive Use contracts is due to the “Legacy” Exclusive Use Airtanker contract expiring in 2017.

The Forest Service has known for years that 2017 would be the last season for the Korean War vintage P2V’s with the 18-cylinder radial engines. In 2013 the agency began a contracting effort to bring in “next generation” turbine-powered aircraft with the ultimate goal of eliminating the P2V’s. The last four that were on contract in 2017 are now retired and most will find final resting places in museums.

Victoria Christiansen
Victoria Christiansen

In addition to losing the four P2V’s, the Forest Service cut three Next Gen BAe-146’s this year.

In February U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson said budget issues were affecting the availability of ground and air-based firefighting resources:

The Forest Service is working to responsibly allocate ever tighter financial resources in the most responsible manner.

Chief Christiansen told us this week they will have “up to 16” large air tankers available through Call When Needed (CWN) contracts. This is an increase over the 11 the FS told us about in February.

If CWN air tankers are available the cost can be up to 54 percent higher than those on EU contracts.

There are two costs for air tankers — daily plus hourly. If the aircraft just sits at an air tanker base available with a flight crew it only earns the daily availability rate. When it flies, an hourly rate is added.

We averaged the daily and hourly EU and CWN rates for three models of air tankers provided by three different companies, BAe-146 by Neptune, RJ85 by Aero Flite, and C-130 (382G) by Coulson. The numbers below are the combined averages of the three aircraft:

EU Daily: $30,150
EU Hourly: $7,601
CWN Daily: $46,341 (+54%)
CWN Hourly: $8,970 (+18%)

These costs only account for the additional costs of contracting for the air tankers, and do not include any increased costs of new, small wildfires escaping initial attack due to a lack of available air tankers or Type 1 helicopters (which have also been cut, from 34 to 28). And it does not include property damage or, heaven forbid, lives lost.

Art Prints

In addition to the 13 air tankers on EU and the 11 (or 16) that may or may not be available on CWN, the Forest Service will use one Coast Guard HC-130H. They will also have access to up to seven military C-130’s which can be outfitted temporally with 3,000-gallon MAFFS retardant systems. And, they have occasionally borrowed air tankers from Canada and the state of Alaska if they were available.

Senators ask Forest Service Chief about cutback in air tankers

In 2017 there were 20 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This year there are 13.

In a hearing Tuesday morning about the Forest Service budget for FY 2019 before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senators asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, about the reduction in the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts and the agency’s plans to rely on call when needed aircraft to fill the void.

Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief Forest Service
Ms. Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief, U.S. Forest Service, testifies April 24, 2018.

Lisa Murkowski (AK), Chair of the committee,  mentioned the issue during her opening remarks. Senators Maria Cantwell (WA) and Cory Gardner (CO) asked questions about what could be a shortage of air tankers, with most of the discussion centering around call when needed vendors. The Senators appeared to be concerned about the higher daily and hourly costs of CWN aircraft, and referred to the 48-hour time frame for them to mobilize after notification.

air tankers contract exclusive use 2000-2018

Ms. Christiansen tried two or three times to explain how activating CWN air tankers works and how the USFS makes decisions about when to bring them on board. Her descriptions were rambling as she talked about predictive services, but it was a little too ambiguous for some of the senators who asked for clarification.

Senator Gardner mentioned that this year there are 13 exclusive use large air tankers compared to 20 last year, and talked about how call when needed aircraft are more expensive than exclusive use aircraft. He said, “What is the rationale for that again?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we really look hard and do our analysis on the right balance between the exclusive use which is for an extended period of time and the call when needed. We take this very seriously and we will evaluate each year and adjust for the balance of these contracts. These next generation aircraft are more expensive than the legacy aircraft we had operated for the last two decades. So we have to be fiscally prudent and responsible in finding that right balance. We are confident that we have the aircraft we need when we need it through the combination of exclusive use, the call when needed, the military MAFFS, and then when we can call our partners down from Alaska and Canada.”

Senator Gardner continued: “Do you think you’re providing industry with enough certainty, private industry with enough certainty, to replace some of the contracts in the past that were coming out of the Forest Service in terms of the air tankers that were in use since the 2014 passage of the Defense Authorization Act?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator Gardner we are doing everything we can to be a good partner with the industry and exercise our fiscal responsibility.”

No one acknowledged the elephant in the room, the reason there are fewer air tankers. The budget that Congress approved and the President signed forced the reduction. Ms. Christiansen, a member of the administration, apparently feels that she has to be a good soldier and say, everything is fine, there’s nothing to see here: “We are confident that we have the aircraft we need”.

And the Senators don’t want to admit that they approved legislation which caused the number of EU air tankers to be cut by one-third. So they asked mild-mannered questions and didn’t follow up when the administration’s representative insisted that everything is going to be OK.

During a discussion about budget reductions on a different issue, Senator Joseph Manchin (WV) said, “Have you been able to push back on the administration, saying you can’t cut me this deep, I can’t do my job?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we have prioritized what we can do within these constraints…”

Senator Manchin: There’s a lot of us that will go out and …..”

Ms. Christiansen: “Our priority is on the National Forests, but I look forward to working with you on additional priorities.”

Meanwhile, John Hoven, the Senator from North Dakota, spent most of his allotted time presenting what was basically an infomercial about his state.

A recorded video of the hearing will be available at the committee’s website.