Unable to fill orders for air tankers compared to the number on contract and wildfire activity

I love charts and graphs, and one of our readers has put together a very interesting one. They found data for the number of large air tankers on contract each year and the number of orders for them that were UTF (unable to be filled).

Air tankers UTF chart
Air tankers, UTF data, 2000-2010. Click to see a larger version. Data from NIFC.

The person that sent us the data and asked to remain anonymous, sent us this message that along with the data:


Great website, I really enjoy reading it. Here is a little flame for the airtanker debate. This is a continuation of my comments posted to the September 26, 2011 page.

I was curious if the number of large air tanker orders that are filled each year have changed with the decreasing fleet size. I came across these data from http://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_statistics.html. I compiled these in the attached spreadsheet for years 2000-2010.

The percentage of orders that are “unable to fill” have increased as the fleet size has reduced. However, in recent years (2009-2010) with a fleet size of ~ 20 planes, the percent of orders unable to fill were 11.5% on average vs 7% for years (2000-2001) when the fleet size was double at ~ 40 planes. I think this shows that the air tanker fleet size is still meeting demand reasonably well even though it has fewer large tankers available. I’ll be curious to see what this looks like for 2011 and especially 2012 if the fleet continues to reduce.

Of course the number of UTFs for air tankers is affected not only by the number of air tankers on contract, but also by the need for them, or, how busy the fire season is. Here is a chart that I put together using data at NIFC showing the number of acres burned in the lower 49 states (which does not include Alaska) 2000 through 2010. I excluded Alaska because in four of the years during this period they burned between 2,000,000 and 6,000,000 acres, which skews the data. Some of their huge fires see little if any suppression activity, so for this purpose, they are largely irrelevant. (Sorry Alaska)

Acres burned in wildfires, lower 49 states 2000-2010
Acres burned in wildfires, lower 49 states 2000-2010. Data from NIFC, compiled by Bill Gabbert

Interpreting this data is very difficult. I would exclude data for 2002 through 2004, because I believe, and someone correct me if I’m wrong, but due to the two fatal mid-air wing failures in 2002, the number of available large air tankers changed dramatically in the middle of the 2002 and 2004 fire seasons as categories of air tankers were grounded, temporarily or permanently.

If you compare UTFs before and after 2002-2004 with similar number of acres burned outside Alaska, sometimes there is a correlation and other times there is none. For example, a similar number of acres burned in 2000 and 2008, and 2008 had more than triple the number of UTFs. But the years 2001 and 2009 with similar acres burned also had similar numbers of UTFs.

Perhaps we can be safe in saying, based on this data, that if more than 4,000,000 acres burn in the lower 49 states as in 2005-2008, having 21 or fewer large air tankers tends to result in 25-30% of the air tanker orders being UTF, which is about triple the UTF rate when fewer acres burn. In 2000 with 40 air tankers on contract, 6,600,000 acres burned, and the UTF rate was 7%.


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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.

7 thoughts on “Unable to fill orders for air tankers compared to the number on contract and wildfire activity”

  1. Does anyone know if the USFS will be answering questions at the press conference Monday? I have 4 questions for them. When going through the contract applications, the woman openly admitted that she looked at the amount for the DC10 and put it on the reject pile without reading it!! I would like to know if, later when they MADE her read it- 1.) Did she compare the cost of the DC10 to the cost of 4 P3s? 2.) If the answer was yes, how can she justify NOT giving a contract to the DC10 3.) Why won’t the USFS allow the DC10 to drop water directly on fires? Nearly 12,000 gallons would put a HUGE dent in fires. 4.) Did they bother to do a comparative of the containment percentage before and AFTER the DC10 flew? Maybe even taking into account the amount of money SAVED by containing these fires faster?

    1. Gina,

      It’s probably best left with the experienced fire managers and firefighters asking the appropriate questions and providing their informed perspectives.

      Your questions, while valid, are not even in the discussion as they have already been answered on a factual basis many times before… 1) It’s not a price or contracting issue…, it’s an issue with planning and someone simply making decisions and setting a path forward, and 2) The USFS airtankers primarily drop retardant both on the edge of the fire, and ahead of the fire.

  2. Well, San Diego requested a VLAT today but the only one with a crew to fly it is in Texas. It’s a shame there’s no crew for DC10 gathering dust in Victorville.

  3. As an IC (local and regionally), I can tell you that I keep up constantly on where federal airtankers are positioned and available… and yes, sometimes we don’t bother ordering a federal airtanker when the state one’s were closer or the federal resources are hours out or fighting fires elsewhere.

    If I know the closest federal large airtanker is 600-800 (or more) miles away, I used to rely upon the state provided S2T airtankers (Type 3) as a stop-gap.

    The new CAL FIRE direction on the use of “their” airtankers on IA federal fires, and limiting their use on extended attack federal fires will undoubtedly skew the UTFs MUCH higher as the federal agencies try to redeem their IA/EA responsibilities. I’d assume better tracking of resource needs and ordering will occur.

  4. OH c’mon Emmett, you and I both know what we’re talking about here, and it’s not “second-guessing” the local dispatchers or the GACC or NIFC.

    Seriously, if you’re ordering resources on a fire and you know for sure you can’t get an IHC or a tanker or a heavy helicopter, would you try stuffing the request through dispatch anyway? Or would you make other plans and try something else?

    I am *not* saying that IMTs are doing this or have done this. I’m just posing the question. Could it maybe tilt the UTF stats just a bit? Maybe?

  5. I like Kelly’s question from the september 26 article

    “If an IC on a fire needs an airtanker but he knows there are none available, does he order one anyway and thus add another UTF to the stats? Or does he order other resources because he knows all the current airtankers are unavailable?”

    1. I would hope that an IC would not try to second guess the Dispatch system and the decision-makers at NIFC who assign priorities for scarce resources. Make the order, give it quick “fill or kill” and then make the decision to ask for an alternative resource, or change your strategies and tactics.


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