Forest Service fails to deliver air tanker report

The U. S. Forest Service has missed another deadline to produce a report about how to deal with the severe shortage of large air tankers. A strategy to replace the dozens of air tankers that were permanently grounded after two very old military surplus air tankers fell apart in mid-air in 2002 should have been developed no later than 2004. Since then, missing promised reports combined with analysis paralysis have resulted in the large air tanker fleet being reduced to 11 on July 29, compared to 44 in 2002. The USFS keeps saying that they have plenty, but in the last couple of weeks they brought on additional air tankers, including three Convair 580s and three CL-215 scooper air tankers, bringing the total to 17 medium and large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Correction. “JR” tells us that the CL-215s are working on a Call When Needed contract day by day, so they could disappear any time.

The Riverside, California Press-Enterprise follows wildfire very closely and on Saturday published an article detailing the USFS’ multiple failures to produce the reports about how to reconstitute the large air tanker fleet. Here is an excerpt from the article written by Ben Goad:

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Forest Service has again missed its deadline to complete studies needed to shape the agency’s future aerial firefighting strategy, igniting concern from a California lawmaker as wildfire season intensifies across the Inland area.

The Forest Service’s director of fire and aviation, Tom Harbour, acknowledged Friday that some of the review work initially scheduled to be complete in January won’t be finished until next year. Harbour attributed the delays to the complexity and high stakes — both in terms of cost and human lives — involved with modernizing the federal aerial firefighting fleet and accompanying policies.

He stressed that plenty of resources are on hand to battle flames in Inland Southern California, where several blazes have ignited in recent days, including a wildfire Friday in the Cajon Pass that shut down Interstate 15.

“This fall in SoCal, we’ve got more than enough stuff to cover the fire needs,” Harbour said.

For example, he said, three CL 215 firefighting planes known as “Scoopers,” able to drop hundreds of gallons of water at a time on flames in remote areas, were brought to the San Bernardino National Forest during a recent blaze.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who first raised concerns about the delays in February, said she remains unsatisfied with the agency’s progress and said she plans to seek answers from Harbour’s boss.

“Fire season has begun in California, and millions of acres are at high risk of wildfire,” said Feinstein, D-Calif. “I intend to meet with Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell to understand why they have again failed to meet this deadline and enact a strategy to protect Californians from wildfires in the coming years.”


Thanks go out to Dick

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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 “Forest Service fails to deliver air tanker report”

  1. Let me see if I got this right. I miss deadline after deadline for 10 years, watch 1000’s of homes burn, refuse to use planes (VLATS) that have been effective elsewhere for 6 years, not to mention ways and technology that could improve firefighting and I still have a job. Who is this guys boss again? Unreal.

  2. In Boise last week there were three convairs sitting in the pits. Nothing against the canucks, but WTF? The new USFS motto is taken dirently from monty python, “run away.” The lack of accountability and leadership is appauling.

  3. The CL-215s are not operating on an exclusive use contract. They are CWN, or on-call, which means they operate on a day to day contract. Texas Forest Service firefighters were able to contain the Cedar Ridge fire yesterday with the help of several SEATS, P2Vs, a VERTOL, and the 3 CL-215s.

  4. Nothing is EVER going to happen until either a Congressman or Senator gets serious and brings up charges for Contempt of Congress against the Forest Service.

    The air tanker fiasco is just symptomatic of what is going on wholesale within the upper ranks of the Forest Service and its fire program.

  5. Personally, I feel the mismanagement of the Forest Service fire program is criminal in nature lately. Folks are doing unethical and illegal actions based upon what they are being directed to do from DC.

    Tom Harbour should be ashamed of himself. He IS NOT our Chief, but he is willing to spin half-truths as fact on the wims of Tidwell… Tom…. get some balls and call bull****..

    Folks at the highest levels in the”Agency” are WITHHOLDING reports and studies that were COMPLETED and BRIEFED upon back in January.

    To outright LIE to Congress, the public, and the press… is a Criminal Conspiracy. WTF are they thinking?

  6. I live in Texas and am appalled at the lack of equipment at the Bastrop Fire. This is a big league fire near a populated area and to see helicopters dropping tiny buckets on blazes miles wide, knowing there are potential assets like the Evergreen 747 in the world. A fleet of these could have made quick work and saved millions in property damage. Two days and zero percent containment.

    What kills me is no one in the national or local “news” digs for stories like this. But we do know what Lady GaGa is up to. Our news services are such talking heads. If more of the general population knew how messed up this service is, there might be more pressure applied. But what am I saying?!…didn’t help FEMA, Fannie Mae, NASA….our fed government is completely broken. Sad. Hopefully Gov Perry’s exposure to this disaster will stay with him if he becomes president. Maybe then, things can change. Maybe.

    Hearts and prayers out to those brave souls fighting and risking their lives in our state these troubling days.

  7. Sen. Feinstein, stay “hot” on the the tanker trail. It appears Mr. Harbour is over worked and needs to rest. Let the commentors of Wildfire Today guide you and Mr. Harbour in the right direction; an electronic committee. This “stuff” isn’t that complex, we just make it that way to bolster our jobs and make us feel (ego) important. The Forest Service/BLM/NPS have some of the best field operational fire aviation people in the world, listen to what they have to say. Stay tuned to this web site for the answers. I’ll start it; next fire season two VLAT’s working for a total of six by the year 2015. Command and control personnel i.e regional duty officers and their subordinates that aren’t affraid to make timely dispatch decision. Helitankers invaluable!
    Let private industry (not the military) like the Bae-146 project be part of the future. NEXT

  8. There are fires in their state….no. All of a sudden, Texans actually care about the Forest Service’s handling of its fire fighting fleet. This article is terribly incomplete, and fails completely to mention the budget restrictions that have cased this problem. You cannot have a tanker fleet in operation if you won’t fund it, and you cannot assess the needs of the fleet if you don’t have the operational capacity to conduct audits. The Forest Service, BLM, and National PArks budget are woefully small. People’s refusal to stop building in 30 year fire zones all over the west, and their insistance on rebuilding in similar areas when their homes are destroyed has pitted us in an expensive and losing battle with nature. Wildfires are a natural phenomenon. Some ecosystems actually depend on them. We’ve fought fires to the point where we’ve allowed massive fuel loads to build up, leading to far more intense fires. Take a look at the fire maps on Weather Underground. Understand that this is a slow fire season, and think about the resources required to fight all of these fires. No one wants to pay a dime in taxes, but somehow expects the cavalry to arrive at the government’s expense when their interests are threatened. You want tankers? Pay for them. How do I know any/all of this…I actually care. I was a forest firefighter at one point. This is the reality we’ve created by under investing in infrastructure.

  9. I think in this economy we would need the equivalent of war bonds issued to purchase new air tankers. Justifying more planes on an economic or effectiveness basis is the crux.

  10. There are dozens of light, medium and heavy tankers sitting north of the 49th right now that are available. only five have been picked up by the USFS. If you need more they are here. CV580s’, Firecats, AT802 firebosses, L-188s’, CL415s and CL215Ts. Most are off or close to end of contacts sitting idle.

  11. (cross-posted from another thread)
    The USFS has been dithering about how to reconstitute the large air tanker fleet since the fleet was reduced by 60% following the two crashes in 2002. There are many options to choose from, but nobody has made a decision. Money is a huge obstacle to overcome, but an even larger one is the analysis paralysis.

    The USFS first needs to define the problem. Then make a decision about what capabilities are needed in fire aviation. How many small, medium, large, and very large air tankers and helicopters do they need and what platforms are suitable. Then figure out the sources of the platforms, who will convert them, own them, maintain them, and operate them. Then find the money and procure them.

    A piece of cake, right? The USFS and the other federal land management agencies are finding that it’s easier to not make these decisions, and hope no one will notice that they are not doing their jobs. That has been the mantra since 2002, and no one has been fired yet. It will be really sad if we reach the 10-year anniversary of those crashes and we still have not done anything. Sort of like the hole at the former site of the World Trade Center.

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