The U.S. Forest Service has commissioned and paid for another study on the use of air tankers. This now becomes the eighth one conducted since 1996 that is either completed or in progress. You can see the entire list on our Documents page.
This one was completed by USFS employees assigned to the Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS). Their goal appeared to be to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of air tankers, although their exact objective could not be found in the document. It is titled Airtankers and wildfire management in the US Forest Service: examining data availability and exploring usage and cost trends, written by Matthew P. Thompson, David E. Calkin, Jason Herynk, Charles W. McHugh, and Karen C. Short.
The researchers found that the data collected as air tankers are being used is very limited, in spite of the fact that the U.S. General Accounting Office in 2007 recommended the Forest Service develop improved systems for ‘recording and analysing data about the cost and use of these assets at the time of the fire’.
It is generally accepted that the most logical use of air tankers is in initial attack. If aerial resources can arrive at the fire while it is only 5, 10 or 20 acres and slow it down, frequently firefighters on the ground can put it out, sometimes preventing it from becoming a megafire that can tie up resources for weeks costing the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. CAL FIRE understands this. We documented one example in which three of their air tankers dropped on a fire within 30 minutes of the first smoke report. Air tankers don’t put out fires, but with only 9 on federal exclusive use contracts like we have today, initial attack with aerial and ground resources is usually impossible.
The RMRS researchers, with the limited amount of data available, concluded that air tankers were used on initial attack for somewhere between 7 and 48 percent of all of their flights. The broad range is an indication of the quality of data being collected as these very expensive resources are being used. Averaged across the years 2007–2010, in cases where the use of air tankers could be linked to the fire size, initial attack fires (less than 300 acres according to the researchers) comprise only 10.8% of total flights (see the chart below, from their report).