The same organization that forced the U.S. Forest Service to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement on the use of fire retardant and sued the federal government to protect the northern spotted owl, has issued a statement criticizing the use of air tankers on fires, claiming that it is “immoral”. The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, who’s motto is “Forest Service employees and citizens working together to protect our National Forests”, argues that aerial firefighting is too dangerous and ineffective and that “retardant doesn’t save homes; proper construction and landscaping save homes.”
In 2002, a government-appointed Blue Ribbon Panel concluded that “The safety record of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in wildland fire management is unacceptable.” The report also noted “if ground firefighters had the same fatality rate [as firefighting aviators], they would have suffered more than 200 on-the-job deaths per year.” Since the Blue Ribbon report’s publication, aviation-related fatalities have gone up 50 percent compared to the three-year period preceding the panel’s report—not including this past weekend’s tragic loss of life.
Mr. Stahl makes a good point about the fatality rate being far too high. And it IS unacceptable. However his statistics are a little shaky, using only a 3-year period as a base comparison, when the annual variability in the number of fatalities can be extreme.
Using some draft statistics for air tanker crew fatalities originally compiled by Chuck Bushey with a little of our help recently in updating them, we did our own analysis. We compared the 10 years before 2002, the year that two air tankers had in-flight wing failures and the Blue Ribbon Report was published, to the following 10 year period, and came up with different results than Mr. Stahl. The years 2003 through 2012 (to date) show a 24% reduction in air tanker crash fatalities over the pre-2002 10-year period. These numbers are based on draft data and could change.
But again, far too many fine pilots have died in air tanker crashes since 1958, including the last 10 years. The profession should not be this dangerous and the state and federal agencies need to be held responsible to provide the pilots with the best possible training, equipment, management, and dispatching so that they can perform their jobs as safely as possible. Saying it’s the contractors’ responsibility is not acceptable. I would argue that a modern aircraft is safer for this mission than one that was built for maritime patrol in the 1950s, like the P2Vs we are currently using to fly in and usually out of smokey canyons, low and slow, in mountainous terrain with challenging density altitude conditions.
Mr. Stahl does make some valid points about the state of our air tanker fleet and how fire-safe home construction and vegetation clearance are the best methods for preventing structures from burning. But here is the quote where he uses the term “immoral”:
Ten years ago, the government’s Blue Ribbon panel said the aerial firefighters’ death rate was “unacceptable.” Today, the government’s fruitless and ineffective aerial war against wildland fire can only be called immoral. Congress should stop pandering to our innate fear of fire and promote sensible fire management policies that save lives and homes.