USFS reduces the number of helicopters on national contracts

Boeing Vertol
Boeing Vertol
Boeing Vertol Type 1 helicopter at Custer, SD, July 31, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert

When we reported on some of the statements that the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service made on Tuesday when he testified before a congressional committee, some of the information about the availability of helicopters raised my curiosity. Chief Tom Tidwell said there will be 30 large Type 1 helicopters on national contracts this year compared to 34 last year, but not all of those last year were Type 1, so this year, according to Chief Tidwell, there will be a net increase in the number of gallons of water that can be carried.

We confirmed that yes, there will be 30 helicopters on national U.S. Forest Service contracts in 2012. The Request for Proposal that the agency issued was for 34 helicopters, but the USFS decided to eliminate four — at Alturas, CA; Oakridge, OR; Orland, CA; and Porterville, CA.

It is debatable whether all 30 of them are Type 1 helicopters, as Chief Tidwell stated. Eight of the 30 are K-1200 (K-Max) ships that have a capacity of 680 gallons of water in an external load, according to the capabilities listed on two of the K-Max contractors’ web sites. The standard for a Type 1 helicopter is for it to be able to carry at least 700 gallons. If someone is listing the K-Max as a Type 1, it is very close to the minimum number of gallons, while as you can see in the chart below, the other helicopters on contract this year can carry from 900 to 2,650 gallons.

The K-Max has by far the cheapest hourly rate of all of the helicopters on contract this year– about 1/6 of the largest Type 1s. And it has by far the smallest capacity. However, the USFS Chief feels free to say all of the helicopters on national contract are Type 1.

One change that was noted in the new contract is that the Boeing Vertol 107 that was at Custer, South Dakota, is being replaced with a smaller K-Max, reducing the number of gallons carried by 38 percent. A cynic might think that in this case the USFS is strictly saving money, with little regard to firefighting capability.

Wildland fire helicopters on contract, 2012

The National Interagency Aviation Council study that was approved by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group in July, 2008, recommended that there be on contract in 2012, 34 Type 1 helicopters, 47 Type 2 helicopters, and 100 Type 3 helicopters. The same study recommended that there be by this year 23 large air tankers plus 3 water scooper air tankers on contract, for a total of 26, and by 2018 a total of 35 (32 plus 3).

Since the number of large air tankers on USFS national exclusive use contracts has decreased by 75% since 2002, down to 11 today, it is difficult to understand the logic of decreasing the number of helicopters. A rational person would attempt to fill the void with more, rather than less. A rational person would also be alarmed that the unable to fill rate for air tanker orders in 2011, a slow fire season in most of the country, was 30 percent.

This state of the wildfire aviation program can be attributed to management that is characterized as lethargic, apathetic, indifferent, timid, passive, indecisive, and afflicted with the Peter Principle and analysis paralysis, as evidenced by the five wildfire aviation studies over the last 16 years that are sitting on shelves, largely ignored. This sorry state of the program has existed for the last 10 years. The citizens deserve better from the stewards of the land.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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.

10 thoughts on “USFS reduces the number of helicopters on national contracts”

  1. The airtanker UTF percentage was skewed.

    In reality, the need for airtankers vs.availability was most likely closer to 50% as Incident Commanders (ICs) and the GACCs stopped wasting time trying to get their incidents prioritized and “in synch” w/ NICC (WO) political priorities.

    IA capability with federal airtankers is pretty much non-existent nowadays… Now they are mostly used for escaped large fire incident support.

    Spend a dime to save a dollar.

  2. ^^^^^

    Now that IS debatable

    Doesn’t matter what party is in power, either.

    As evidenced for the last 15-20 yrs and even before that.

    Some of the people IN and OUT of the Agencies have voted for the vey likes of the folks who brought you the EPA, NEPA, Scenic River ways Act, etc that have hamstrung PLENTY of timber projects and now finally a bridge across the St Croix River in MN / WI that is now going to cost triple or quad due to those fine pieces of Legislation.

    I would imagine it takes constituents and interests groups to make or force legislation as mentioned above and certainly no Agency is above creating its own hoops for the enjoyment of others to hop through

    Does the IFPM sound familiar when a good majority of already SAF recognized colleges have produced enough forestry personnel. and now the IFPM to prove and spend more money to get fire credentialing to prove one is fire qualified.

    Folks here will chirp about FEMA and DHS and others, but old MA and PA Green (USFS) have created their own “legislative” monsters through OPM and OMB to create their own little infrastructure after plenty of us have spent 40,000 to 100,000 K to earn a BS degree to get paid a measly GS3/4 starting salary.

    Legislation? Plenty of done by the Agencies themselves without the Beltway helpin’ out!!

  3. Well Fire Dude

    We will see if the USFS ever gets top of the line aircraft let alone getting to work on the nations national resources. The untenable situation is what he is paid to do.. Again, you know, the hard right choices over the easy shortcuts.

    You know the timber, grasslands, and natural infrastructure, that the land management agencies are charged to do

    IF the US military has to take the cuts then the land management agencies ought to take the cuts also such as “new IT systems” every turn of the wheel, closure of some unproductive facilities.

    Maybe it require going back to simpler things they could handle. It time to pay the piper and if the other Gov agencies have to do it, then there ought to be some REAL HARD decisions to be made.

    Some of the agencies have been thinking they can by on the cheap……well aviation isn’t one of ’em and plenty of us 15.00 to 20.00 hour aircraft mechanics can tell you about prices of replacement engines and parts that OFTEN outstrip the price of seed collection or tree planting.

    Again, the hard right decision over the easy short cut has to be made by the land maangement leadership, after all, they tell and inform US of that from the FAM – WO hallowed halls….

    1. Just remember that in our Democracy, Congress passes the Laws that the Agencies must follow (NEPA, Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species, Antiquities Act, Multiple Use-Sustained Yield, NFMA, etc) and then without looking at them, passes a piece-meal budget that does not fund the intent of their Legislation. Then they sit in the Halls of Congress and pontificate about what a lousy job the Agencies are doing about putting out fires, cutting timber, grazing cows, and developing mines and gas wells.
      Will it get better in November 2012 and be different in January 2013 when a new Congress is sworn in …..?

  4. OK Steve, Leo and Bill can we all admit that the political climate is not free of some if not most of the blame here? Yes the airtanker fleet is old but the budget situation created by Washington and the fleet getting old at the same time are an unfortunate confluence. The chief is in an untenable situation, do you propose that he drop half the hotshot crews and 3/4 of the engine fleet to restaff the AT fleet? Aerial application of retardant is only as effective as the ground people to support its application. When the message from one side of the aisle is that all government spending is the work of the devil and bad and there is no money for even private enterprise what is your solution? I get a good laugh when I see that Texas last year, (But you can substitute any western state political person) the very same guy calling for massive cuts in government spending does not change his position about funding but wants the FS to add a fleet of top of the line aircraft.

    1. Good points, Mr. Dude, but the blame falls on both the politicians, who ask questions at hearings but don’t adequately fund fire programs, and the USFS and other federal land management agencies which after 10 years of watching the air tanker fleet degrade into a shell of its former self, still have not put together a detailed, specific plan of how to rebuild the fleet, so that Congress can at least consider it. Politicians can’t vote on vague concepts.

      If the agencies could develop a detailed aerial resources plan, including specific dollar figures by year for the next 10 years, then that is something concrete that could be discussed, evaluated, and either funded by Congress… or not. Put our representatives on record of supporting or not supporting adequate wildland fire capability.

      But even if we add 10 to 20 air tankers at the lower cost option of converting 10-15 year old airliners, it’s going to cost much more than what we have been spending for a fleet of a dozen 50 year old war birds. And, I know, money is tight, but the reality is that having a viable, effective, safe aerial tool for slowing the spread of wildfires is pretty damn important. And it has to be matched by enough boots on the ground to take advantage of the drops.

      At least one high profile politician is suggesting that we start wars #4 and #5 by bombing Iran and Syria. If only a fraction of the cost of doing that was diverted to the capability to retardant-bomb wildland fires in our own country we’d be in much better shape.

      How’s this for a bumper sticker:


  5. I would have to say Steve, that the USFS doesn’t do lots of things it used to do in 2006 and before.

    It is an organization “steeped in culture” and trying to find it “forestry roots” since 1903.

    If you read the BRP 2002 report, you will find out that even that read hints at a few issues such as an organization(s) Both USFS and USDOI as agencies unable to do aircraft acquisition and contracting with a STEEP aviation knowledge to support ANY sort of aviation mission.

    One can blame the military, the FAA and the operators for all the issues.

    But, at the end of the day, the USFS and other land management agencies have not done a very admirable job in the last 10-15 years even managing what they currently have.

    Isn’t also true the USFS is also wanting to acquire more lands in SW US? Don’t they have enough that they can’t manage now?

    Can’t manage forests and aviation at the same time and call ones self “EXPERTS.”

    The agencies best know what they are doing in further acqusitions of land because it suuuurrre seems they can not get a handle on the acreages they already have and try to tell the US citizenry that the infrastructure at these land managed facilities have been properly kept up.

    So if they are spending OUR money and not taking care of it as “stewards of the land” and maintaining these areas as good or BETTER than they left it

    Then….it is easy to cast stones. Because in the end these folks who “manage” the land need to to be held accountable to their primary mission.

    The have made a mockery of the LAT and some of the aviation program by delivering on LESS than promised. It all has been discussed here and why the dog and pony show with Tidwell and the folks on the Hill this week?

    More like whining for more candy that they may or may not get this year. The USFS best HOPE that the C130 combatant commanders and their folks don’t get pressed to some excursion this summer!!

  6. USFS does not fight fire like it did in 2006. If everyone will recall there is no substantive logging activities on National Forest Lands as there was in the 1980s. The monies provided from this supported even state and local governments. These monies are long gone and hence funds for local government and USFS are not there any more. If timber on National Forests are no longer a resource with economic value, how much money can we use to suppress those fires-most fire managers know 100% suppression is not a cheap affair-so this is why we are forced to retreat to a limited suppression strategy. Areas in the WFI, therefore will be higher priority and we will see greater resources expended. These were decisions driven by political leaders over the years which has impacted the lumber industry nationwide, simply throwing rocks at USFS will not change anything. The American people voted for those who made these decisions which drive agency priorities. For those in CAL FIRE protected lands, did your local taxes not increase for Wildland Fire protection to subsidize fire protection?

  7. This season should be a bit busier than last. We can hope the need for more air resources will be exposed.


Comments are closed.