Cuts in numbers of air tankers could result in the use of more expensive CWN aircraft

The exclusive use large air tankers are being cut from 20 in 2017 to 13 in 2018.

MD-87, Tanker 101

Above:  Tanker 101, an MD87, at Rapid City December 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at FireAviation.com at 3:05 p.m. MT February 21, 2018)

With the federal government’s drastic cut in the number of large air tankers on Exclusive Use (EU) contracts this year we did some calculations to look at the increased cost of this strategy. If the Forest Service desires more than the 13 that are on EU contracts, down from 20 in 2017, they can activate those on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts — that is, IF they are available. But this comes at a much higher price tag.

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. Both of these rates are higher for most air tankers.

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. It also does not include property damage or, heaven forbid, lives lost. In 2017 the Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts were cut from 34 to 28, and that continues in 2018.

State and local wildfire organizations that in the past have counted on the federal government’s air tankers to assist them when they desperately need air support, had better look for alternatives. However, this slow motion atrophy of the air tanker fleet has been going on for the last 15 years.

air tankers contract exclusive use 2000-2018

gabbert prescription keep wildfires small

You may want to express your opinion to your Senators or Representatives.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

9 thoughts on “Cuts in numbers of air tankers could result in the use of more expensive CWN aircraft”

  1. Insightful summary of tankers. What is the average cost / gallon delivered including all overhead for each aircraft?

    1. The components of what is billed to a fire is the cost of the retardant (ranging from $2/gal to 5$/gal, depending on local circumstances), flight time, and daily availability. I think I have seen a small landing fee of some sort charged when we ordered VLATs out of Boise, but I can’t specifically recall and may be wrong. On EU contracts, daily availability is charged to a specific hard money aviation fiscal code. On CWN aircraft, I’ve seen both the daily availability be charged to the fire or charged to a hard money aviation specific code.

      To answer your question, costs per gallon depend mostly on the type of aircraft used, and the time it takes that aircraft to fly from the tanker base to the fire, drop, and return. To give an example, I’ve dealt with VLAT bills that end up being around 150k/sortie. In this case that I can remember, the VLAT had to come from a neighboring state and had quite a long trip to get to us. Works out to about $12.50/gal in this particular case. VLATs tend to be the most efficient tankers in terms of cost per gallon.

  2. Wildfires and fire danger increase and heavy tankers on contract are decreased after all the time and money spent to make an improved, modernized fleet of tankers available. Just doesn’t make sense.

  3. Your prescription “Dr. Gabbertt” is complete outdated and is the reason we in wildland fire are in the situation currently we face in the real world. Aggressive IA only makes the issue even worse, how do you not get this? Also more air tankers/helicopters will not save lives as you think and continue to preach.

    We need a comprehensive ecological approach to fire and do everything to introduce it back to a landscape level.

    1. If a land manager decides a new fire will be managed as a prescribed natural fire (PNF), then obviously an aggressive initial attack (IA) will not be implemented. Simplistically, it can be a binary decision — aggressive IA or a PNF. Something in between does not make sense. A weak, failed IA can turn into a disastrous life and property threatening money pit of a catastrophic disaster lasting for weeks or months. One of the classic examples of that is the Waldo Canyon Fire that started on the Pike National Forest. It burned 344 homes and killed two people in Colorado Springs, Colorado in June, 2012.

      There is a place for PNFs but they are extremely difficult to pull off successfully. It takes smart firefighters with a great deal of experience. And the earlier in the season it is attempted, the harder it becomes. Allowing a fire to roam for months increases the chance that a wind event, or multiple weather events, will create havoc. Babysitting a fire for months can be very expensive and tie up firefighting resources for extended periods of time when they may be needed on new IA or extended attack fires. And then there is the toxic smoke issue that is getting increased attention.

      Bill GABBERT

  4. (another Bill) you might want to run that idea of outdated thinking by Cal Fire and the people of California. 10 to 20 times a day during the dry season Cal Fire’s aggressive approach to initial attack containment is the only thing that keeps this State from burning up. Was the Big Burn of 1910 the results of suppression of natural fires? Mr. Snipes you are correct. Once a fire burns into the second burning period with short range containment not predicted, Mother Nature is in the drivers seat and she will do as She see fit.

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