Forest Service conducts another study on air tankers

Air tankers Rapid City
Air tankers Rapid City
Air tankers at Rapid City, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

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).

Air tanker drops by fire size
Thanks go out to Matt

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

9 thoughts on “Forest Service conducts another study on air tankers”

  1. As a taxpayer, I think I got my moneys worth out of this study. It used real data instead of models and assumptions. “All models are wrong, some are useful” … the trick is figuring out if a model is useful. The problem with defending any budget in D.C. is that models don’t cut it, you need real data and real analysis. I’d say that this is a step in the right direction by the USFS.

  2. If studies put out fires there would be very few Forest Service fires over one acre. 10 Air Carrier has probably set a new record for retardant delivery, one million gallons in eight days! Has anyone noticed that when the VLAT is used on a fire (i.e. Ponderosa) the duration of that fire running out of control is significantly reduced? Of course it takes ALL assests and hard work to accomplish containment. Rapid City Air Tanker Base should look like the photo at the beginning of fire season, not days after a fire has made its “run”.

  3. Just pointing out that if you want more tankers and aircraft on contract, including the DC-10, the USFS needs funding. To get funding, they have to meet the requirements listed in paragraph 2 of the executive summary of the USDA OIG audit.
    No solid data backing up a solid plan = no money. It’s the way D.C. works. The only other way is to have some real large fires that result in deaths and a lot of damage and get people worked up. Then you get extra funding for a year or so [say 2013 and 2014] and then its back to business as usual in D.C.

  4. Oregon has Two 3000gallon DC-7’s on contract with one in reserve. There are eight P-3’s molding away in California.
    Useful but not approved?
    What is wrong with this picture? This study is a step in the right direction but how about some input and data from the
    Operators both private and government? Another study isn’t what we need but some common sense…

  5. Unfortunately, there is no common sense in D.C. just bean counters, a bunch of analysts, staffers, and politicians. The requirement to prove a “negative” [ Mr. Congressman, the investment in air tankers prevents bad things from happening] is just about the hardest thing I can think of proving in D.C.
    Common sense just doesn’t get any money in a budget. You need data, not models, and you need a very good analysis of the benefit of the investment. So far, the USFS hasn’t been able to do it.

  6. In 2006, Australia toured through France, Canada, and the U.S. to determine international best practices for aerial firefighting. The report is here…
    They outlined the system that British Columbia (p.29 of pdf file) uses to track efficiency which is then used to satisfy the bean counters and justify funding on their airtanker program.

    It was noted that the USFS doesn’t have an efficiency tracking system in place and by the looks of it still don’t. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just copy what works for others and adapt, expand, or modify for their own use. If performance is not being tracked, it is pretty difficult to optimize it.

  7. Federal funding is like the tide, in and out, in and out. Appropriation of funds go to who has the best lobbyist and congressional district “horsepower”. Unfortunately the Federal fire agencies doesn’t have much or any of the above mentioned. The days of Federal air tankers (44) available for immediate response to fires is gone. Reintroducing fire into the forest, retardant watch dogs, elected officials that can’t get togeather on any issue, this is the new norm. Fire suppression money is good for the economy. Provides jobs and supports small merchants in out of the way locations. As with many helicopter operators maybe the entire Federal fixed wing air program should be CWN. Adjusted flight rates that reflect “pay as you go”? Isn’t that already in place today? No initial fixed wing attack and mega fires that burn throughout the summer. Although this is a hard pill to swallow (especially for those of the 60’s,70’s era) nothing stays the same.

  8. Yes, you’re right … politics trumps the facts every time. But good data and good analysis can eventually win the day and even swing political support because the story hard data tells doesn’t change from year to year or party to party. Those in the “business” need to start figuring out how to support their requirements with hard facts. In the real world, experience and “trust me” works to make your case … in D.C. it doesn’t get you out of the starting blocks. The document John Van Allen pointed to has an excellent summary of the AAR like process used by British Columbia to track success rates and effectiveness.

    I don’t believe it is time to give up on initial attack just because NFS doesn’t have hard data [or a plan to get it] to back up their budget requests for large air tanker support.

  9. It really is the paradigm shift the USFS needs to invest in. As part of the team in the Australian NAFC best practice tour and contributor to the report, the mindset for initial attack between BCFS and the USFS was quite astounding. The cost benefit for very early initial attack is huge especially when aircraft are sent as teams to support each other and are integrated with early ground attack. It has been proven in Australia as well as the most effective way in increasing the probability of success of early control by responding very early if you investigate research by the Autralian Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre. in addition initial attack success is often achieved with SEATs and helicopters applying direct attack techniques as the preferred mode of operation.

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