USFS Chief issues statement about air tanker availability

CL-215 and CL-415
CL-215 and CL-415 Medium Type 3 air tankers scoop water from Snowbank Lake while working on the Pagami Creek fire recently in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. Photo by Kristi Marshall for the Superior National Forest

(This article was updated on September 14 to reflect that there are now eight Convair CV-580 air tankers working temporarily in lower 48 States.)

The U. S. Forest Service is apparently feeling the heat from the public and politicians about the agency’s management, or lack thereof, of the large air tanker fleet, which through neglect has dwindled from the 44 we had in 2002 to the 11 large air tankers currently on exclusive use contracts. The decline began with the crash of two very old military surplus air tankers in 2002, which prompted the permanent grounding of similar antiques. But in the nine years since those crashes, nothing significant has been accomplished to rebuild the fleet.

This morning there were 11 air tankers on exclusive use contracts, plus 12 hired temporarily on a day basis (including one DC-10) and six or seven military C-130 MAFFS on a temporary assignment. There were no federal large air tankers in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, or Washington. I wonder if the firefighters on the ground in those states know they will get no large air tanker support for the initial attack of fires?

Here is a statement that was issued around September 8, 2011 by the U. S. Forest Service. Our comments are embedded in red.

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Statement from US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on Aircraft Support for Texas, Other Wildfires Throughout the Country

The Forest Service is working hard right now with our federal, state and local partners to combat fires in Texas, California and several other states. I want to assure the public that the Forest Service has ample aircraft strategically placed around the country to support on-the-ground teams combating this year’s wildfires. Our current available airplane fleet includes: “Ample aircraft”? One of the many USFS air tanker studies shows that we should work toward a goal of 32 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Now we have 11. 

  • 17 Large Air Tankers which have a capacity of delivering an average of over 2000 gals. of water or retardant per trip. We have 11 “Large” air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Within the last few weeks the USFS brought in on a temporary day by day basis eight “Large” Type 2 Convair CV-580 air tankers, three from the state of Alaska and five from the Canadian government.
  • 1 DC-10 Very Large Airtanker with a capacity of 12,000 gals. This was hired on a day by day Call When Needed contract. The USFS refuses to award any exclusive use contracts for Very Large Air Tankers, such as the DC-10s or the 747, which can carry 11,800 and 20,000 gallons, respectively.
  • 8 military aircraft specially outfitted to fight fires with an average capacity of 3000 gals. Six have been activated. Four are in Texas and two are in Idaho. CAL FIRE may have activated a seventh one for state responsibility fires in California.
  • 3 CL- 215 scooper aircraft which can deliver an average of 1300 gals. of water per trip.These are on a Department in Interior CWN contract. They are trying to get two more through an international agreement with Canada.
  • More than 100 wildland fire response helicopters, including exclusive use contracts for:
    • 2 dozen Type-1 heavy helicopters
    • Over 40 Type-2 medium helicopters on national contracts
    • Over 50 Type-3 light helicopters on local or regional contracts
    • Additional helicopters are available through call-when-needed contracts

All of these assets support the more than 16,000 federal firefighters (10,500 are Forest Service), and 1000 Forest Service firefighting engines.

The Forest Service takes the safety of our employees and contractors seriously and we insist on maintaining stringent airworthiness standards that were developed after two airtankers crashed in 2002, resulting in the loss of both crews. The Forest Service does not take shortcuts on safety. No responsible person is saying waiting more than nine years to make a decision about how to rebuild the air tanker fleet is taking a “shortcut”.

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+

14 thoughts on “USFS Chief issues statement about air tanker availability”

  1. I cannot believe that the FS chief can say that there are ‘ample’ aircraft! Tom, the first step is admitting there is a problem! I can tell you from the past few weeks of experience in Oregon that we are definitely short on aviation resources and saying we aren’t does not solve the problem. This is like a slap in the face to the folks on the fire line who continue to be told that they need to make do with the current resources they have, because there is nothing else available.

    1. Richard, I am only aware of three Convair CV-580s working in the U.S. now. They are tankers 142, 152, and 155. Yesterday they were at Boise, Reno, and Redmond. Where are the other three, what are their numbers, and when were they added to the mix?

      1. I counted NINE convairs here on the tracker this morning. Three in Helena 145,144, 149 three in Boise 152,171,174 two in Redmond 155 ,147, and one in Battle Mountain 153. Hmmm

        1. I confirmed with a spokesperson for the USFS in Boise who told me there are eight CV-580s in the lower 48 states right now; three from the state of Alaska, two from the Saskatchewan government, and three from Conair in Canada. The Tanker numbers I got were: 171, 174, 149, 145, 144, 147, 153, and 152. T-155 was not on the list. I have also heard that T-142 is at Boise, but it does not show up on your Tracker or the list from the USFS spokesperson.

  2. With days off and mechanicals the real number is much less. The P2s have had a tough time this year. Tidwell is proving to the real world that he is just a polictico. A full investigation will show the response times and number of fires that got out of hand due to the “ample aircraft”.

  3. THIS is one of the most honest, well written, accurate articles I have ever seen on this topic! Kudos to the author

  4. While I have mixed opinions of the canadians being down here, I do believe our brothers in the P2 deserve much respect and thanks this year. I also wonder why the feds have not mandated two days off per week when these guys are flying their pants off. Safety first except when CYA!

  5. Thank you, THANK YOU for keeping this issue in the public. Citizens have to know how they are being manipulated and their lives and property are the risk the USFS and our government is willing to take and ultimately sacrafice for political and monetary gain under the disguise of safety issues that DID NOT disable the P-3’s from doing their job THIS fire season and possibly saving lives.

  6. So, when the Chief or others make these statements that all is well, in direct opposition to their own studies and their experts on the ground, are they just lying politicians, or are they clueless bureaucrats that just don’t know what’s going on in the real world outside the beltway?

  7. I hate to say it. But it seems like there had to be a tragic loss of life before they realize they need more larger aircraft. And while they wait, these companies cannot stay afloat. Look at AeroUnion (P-3 Orions) and 10Tanker (DC-10). I really don’t think they can survive with out a contract. This is sad for those in areas prone to wildfires. 10Tanker was going to expand I heard but no more. And once they are gone, then what…

  8. The USFS has 3 aircraft on loan from Manitoba supporting the Pagami Creek Fire in addition to CL-415s making quick strikes down from Ontario.

    1 CL-215 T-251
    1 CL-415 T-257
    1 C-310 Birddog

  9. So United States funds are going out to Canada, and Mexico …and we are eliminating jobs here in the United States and putting California businesses OUT of business because the USFS wants to gain funds under the guise of using military aircraft? Funny how those numbers above seem to include the Air Tankers presently sitting in Sacramento. Because back in JUNE of this year, the numbers are exactly the same. So, what’s the truth?
    http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/2011/06/tidwell-senate.html

  10. Bill, This is a really great article on airtanker availability. I have also enjoyed the comments. For example, before I got going on a couple of projects last week, I had been wondering about the number of Convair CV-580s. Thanks to you and those who commented for clearing this up. I especially enjoyed reading the Statement from the USFS with your comments. I myself had run across this same statement last week, and don’t think that I can add anything else to what you have already stated. Keep up the good work.

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