CAL FIRE establishes policy of limiting air tanker response to federal fires

P3 air tanker
A P3 air tanker on the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico, July 15, 2011. All contracts for P3's were cancelled by the USFS in late July and the company, Aero Union, has been forced out of business. Photo by Kari Greer for the USFS

Responding perhaps to the U. S. Forest Service’s reduction of the large air tanker fleet from 44 in 2002 to the 14 that are on exclusive use contracts today, CAL FIRE has distributed a memo laying out in no uncertain terms a policy stating that their agency will put strict limits on the use of the state’s air tankers on federal fires.

If a federal incident requires “load and return” of CAL FIRE airtankers or additional CAL FIRE air tankers are ordered for the incident, the Federal GACC will order federal air tankers(s) from the other California GACC or through NICC as appropriate to replace CAL FIRE IA air tankers. CAL FIRE airtankers should NOT be considered as a replacement for federal aircraft on extended attack or major Federal incidents in California.


The Region Duty Chief shall revisit the use of CAL FIRE air tankers on federal incidents with his/her federal Duty Chief counterpart at least every hour throughout the incident.

CAL FIRE seems to have understandably lost their patience with the lack of initiative and heads in the sand approach the USFS and the other federal land management agencies have adopted in managing the federal air tanker fleet for the last nine years. The federal land management agencies have been irresponsible and have mismanaged the federal fleet. They have taken advantage of CAL FIRE’s resources, while not pulling their own weight, at least in California.

Since the wings fell off two very old military surplus air tankers in 2002 requiring the grounding of over half the fleet, the U. S. Forest Service has commissioned several studies of how to reconstitute the air tanker program.

Last May we wrote this:

The USFS has been studying the issue of replacing the fleet of large air tankers since the “Blue Ribbon Panel”, chaired by former NTSB Chairman James E. Hall, evaluated the air tanker program following the two crashes in 2002 in which the wings fell off very old military surplus aircraft, killing five people. Those crashes resulted in the permanent grounding of about 60 percent of the large air tankers, from 44 in 2002 to the 18 or so we have today.

Now there is still another study going on, this time by the Rand Corporation. It was due in January, 2011, but even Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, has had difficulty finding out anything about it. Last week, according to a newspaper article, Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, responding three months after her inquiry, said the report would not be completed until August. Will this report simply sit on a shelf next to the last one, or will the USFS actually do something this time?

At a Senate hearing in June, Chief of the USFS Tom Tidwell said:

In the next 10 years more than half of our large air tankers will need to be replaced and we are studying the options and will be making a recommendation to you by the end of the summer.

Well, the latest study is already eight months overdue, but we have been told now it will show up by “August” and by “summer”. Really. They want us to believe them this time. Really. Both August and summer are almost over. These decisions about managing the air tanker fleet should have been made eight years ago. Eight years ago.

We don’t have an adequate number of air tankers for average wildfire conditions. If the predictions for dry lightning across the northwest through this weekend are accurate, that will become even more obvious.

While the overdue study still has not been released, the USFS issued a Request for Information (RFI) on August 3 asking about vendors’ potential interest in supplying “two to eight fixed wing water scooper aircraft”.  This may or may not result in any contracts for air tankers:

This RFI is for planning purposes only and shall not be construed as an RFP or as a decision or obligation on the part of the Government to acquire any products or services.

Making decisions is hard, huh?

On June 5, 2011 the U. S. Forest Service awarded a Call When Needed contract for 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker, with no guarantee of flight hours or daily availability. CAL FIRE also has a CWN contract for the DC-10’s.

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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.

12 thoughts on “CAL FIRE establishes policy of limiting air tanker response to federal fires”

  1. 3 CL-215’s from Aero Flite Inc. (Kingman, AZ) arrived yesterday at San Bernardino Tanker Base. They were used today on the Mile Fire (CA-BDF) and Oasis Fire (CA-BDU/LAC). Refill was from Big Bear Lake.

    Plans are for them to be used by ground filling at SBD, or filling at various scooping sources after they are approved for use.

  2. CAL FIRE initially received the S-2s through the Federal Excess Property Program (also their OV-10s and helicopters).

    With federal grants and funding, the CAL FIRE fleet was expanded and retrofitted to what it is today. Some items in their fleet are still FEPP, while others have transferred ownership.

    If the federal government can subsidize and finance a small air force in California, it surely can do the same on federal level using the same funding mechanisms, but allowing those funding sources to be used by the federal wildland agencies.

    Currently, federal agencies aren’t eligible for federal grant funding.

    While I applaud CAL FIRE for standing their ground, it’s important to note that federal taxpayers funded their “air force” from day #1. When structures are threatened, it’s not time to flex your muscles to prove a point.


  3. So, where did the S-2 air tankers come from? Did CDF/CalFire pay the Billions of $$ needed to develop a specific wildland firefighting Air Tanker? Or, is this just another re-furbished ex-Military aircraft too? And do any of you really believe that there is a National will to foot the bill to design, test and then build an aircraft specifically to drop retardant of wildfires?
    It’s obvious that we’re not in a good situation, but we in the wildland fire world are just a very small part of the National picture, and our options to spend millions/billions on new air tankers are almost non-existent. So, instead of having dreams about having P-3s, DC-10s and 747s on our fires, what are some realistic and achievable solutions to our Air Tanker concerns?

    1. @Emmett

      > where did the S-2 airtankers come from?

      .. The boneyard down near Marana.

      > Did CDF pay the $$ needed to develop a specific wildland firefighting airtanker?

      Yes, CDF did pay for them, but I don’t know if you’d call the S-2 a specific wildland firefighting airtanker. It wasn’t purpose-built. They paid for the retrofit and tanking and conversion to the current tanker versions they’re flying. You’ll read photo captions in papers all summer long about CalFire’s S-2 fleet, but the state doesn’t own them. The aircraft are owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Not likely the USFS will ask for them back anytime soon, but California does not own those tankers.

      > Or, is this just another re-furbished ex-military aircraft too?

      Yes they are. But comparing them to Aero Union’s or Neptune’s tankers is apples and watermelons.

      > And do any of you really believe that there is a national will to foot the bill to design, test and then build an aircraft specifically to drop retardant of wildfires?

      I don’t think there’s a national will to do it, a budget to do it, a Congressional will to do it, or an agency ability to do it. Fund more boneyard planes and follow California’s example with their fleet? Quite possibly. The fed and state governments haven’t got the money for new purpose-built, and they’re not going to get it, either. The military might have or get the budget, but they really don’t WANT the job; fire is not their job. I don’t see private investors lined up for a shot at buying/leasing/rehabbing military aircraft. The only Western state I know of with a fat budget surplus is Montana, and I don’t see them buying or building fixed-wing tankers anytime soon, either.

  4. I would think a Freedom of Information Act
    request would reveal how much money is being spent on MAFFS deployment and the cost of the RAND study.

    Now RAND being the contractor for the study might hire some subject matters experts, likley former govermental fire/aviation and/or private sector air tanker people for “expert” information. They will then have a professional writter review and edit the information and write the report so it meets the criteria of standard govermental reports.

    Or they may hire a couple of kids out of college with little or no knowlege of the air tanker issues and let them be the experts.

    We will have to wait and see what is produced.

  5. I doubt you get an honest answer Bill but dont forget to add the fleet of rent cars, number of hotel floors with each deployment. Been told that training cost alone was north of 2 million. It can vary. Albuquerque took around 60 rent cars. A fire near a base would not. Point is that cost per hr is not total cost. Dont forget the lead planes will also have to double up the their lines in most cases.

  6. The USFS has spent more on RAND (with no input or data from any vendor) than they have on trying to use the DC 10 or 747. We all know the MAFFS are half of what is claimed and much more expensive as well.

    1. I have never heard what it costs to use MAFFS air tankers. Does anyone know? I assume the military does not simply absorb the cost… they probably bill the federal agencies. With their large entourages, I doubt if they are cheap.

  7. The USFS is doing all it possibly can to avoid uses the DC 10. 6 years success in all types of terrain on complex incidents are being wavied off. No wonder people hate the Federal agencies. Without a exclusive contract for a full time asset it is just a matter of time before they too will go away. After that I guess the only option will be to pay Mark Rey 2.5 billion of our money for the tankers he has been trying to sell.

  8. Kudos to CALFIRE.

    Years ago I wondered why CDF didn’t loan its S2s out to neighboring states very often (if at all). Part of it was because if they did, the payment for the tankers’ use went right to California’s general fund — NOT to CDF for maintenance and aircraft costs. There’s a loser proposition.

    Those big bad dangerous DC-7 ships that the USFS wouldn’t touch? Still flying in Oregon — on a state contract, with occasional trips to California.

    Here’s the irony as I see it: The USFS claimed repeatedly when they grounded most of the fleet almost TEN YEARS AGO that it was for safety reasons. The agency kept waving that safety flag when anyone with a clue could see it was liability and not safety they were worried about. So Aero Union’s demise will also be called “safety” by the USFS and ironically, the agency may wake up one morning to find a very very large lawsuit under its pillow — after a fire gets loose and mows down a subdivision and the agency can’t adequately explain why no airtankers were available.

  9. When a person who can make change retires and another person moves up to “take the helm” the process of finding a solution (?) to the Federal fixed wing air tanker program starts all over again. Now it becomes someone elses problem and so on and so on. The I.C. (good call) on the fire near Yosemite N.P. which is threating two coummunities requested four (4) helitankers immediate need! (non available in California.) Helitankers are probably somewhere in Utah protecting a endangered lizard or donkey habitat. Once again Cal Fire will fill in the void for fixed wing tankers. What ever happened to the three “out sourced” tankers from Canada?

  10. Right on Cal Fire, I was wondering what was up. Today a fire broke just out of yosemite and I never saw one plane near it all day ie a tanker. Not to bad mouth helicopters but from a IA approach im sure this one will grow! and grow! good luck USFS, why don’t you throw a couple maffs units at it.


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