USFS to pay for another air tanker study

P2V air tanker
P2V air tanker flying off into the sunset. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

The U.S. Forest Service is going to pay for still another air tanker study. The agency has issued a solicitation (AG-024B-S-12-0003) for private contractors to produce a report that:

…proposes at least three (3) alternatives that demonstrates the effectiveness of airtankers, heavy helicopters and water scoopers (defined in terms of aircraft use, aircraft characteristics, bases, contracts, costs, dispatching, mission objectives, tactics, strategy and communications).

This will be the sixth air tanker study in the last 17 years. Here is the list:

  1. 1995-1996: National Air Tanker Study (NATS)
  2. 2002: Blue Ribbon Panel report
  3. 2005: Wildland Fire Management Aerial Application Study
  4. 2007-2009: National Interagency Aviation Council, Interagency Aviation Strategy
  5. 2010: “An Examination of the United States Forest Service’s Need for Large Aviation”, by the Rand Corporation
  6. 2012: (this new study: “Aerial Firefighting Effective Use and Efficiency”)

(More details about these studies.)

The secret Rand air tanker study

In 2010 the USFS hired the Rand Corporation for an air tanker study that is being kept secret. The agency would not provide a copy of it even after we requested it under the Freedom of Information Act. They replied, saying “…the report is proprietary and confidential Rand business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4”. Their refusal letter went on to say: “The data, analysis, and conclusion in this report are not accurate or complete.” The letter also said they wanted “to protect against public confusion that might result from premature disclosure.” But, according to Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise, the agency paid the Rand Corporation $840,092. What a deal for Rand, for submitting an inaccurate and incomplete report.

The new study

This new report must be submitted within 154 days after the award, which makes it due as the 2012 fire season is winding down, probably in October or November.

The USFS ordered the writers of the 2010 Rand report to specifically exclude Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) from their study. The new solicitation does not exclude them in writing, but neither does it include them. It requires the contractor to:

Define the utility and operational parameters of large airtankers (LAT), heavy helicopters (defined as Type 1), and water scoopers in accomplishing the variety of aviation missions supporting wildfire management…

The solicitation repeatedly refers to “large air tankers (LAT)” being studied, so it appears that again VLATs will not be included since they are not mentioned at all. Apparently the USFS thinks they already have enough information about the DC-10, 747, and any other air tankers that can carry 5 to 10 times more retardant than the air tankers we are currently using. In other words, “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts”.

The aborted study

This is at least the second solicitation for an air tanker study that has been issued since the 2010 Rand report. The USFS announced on August 15, 2011 that they intended to award a second contract, at that time a non-competitive contract, to the Rand Corporation to continue studying the air tanker issue. It seemed counter-intuitive that anyone would award another contract, especially a non-competitive contract, to a company that months before had produced a similar product the same buyer described as inaccurate and incomplete. Two weeks later the USFS canceled the solicitation, “due to the responses received expressing interest in this procurement”. The USFS has not announced that any contracting officers or high-level managers were disciplined or fired over that debacle.

Why pay for another air tanker study?

This additional air tanker study continues the analysis paralysis of the last 17 years. Continuing to kick the can farther down the road decade after decade allows our leadership in Boise and Washington D.C. to postpone the terrible ordeal of making a decision. Their air tanker strategy appears to be: “Make no tough decisions, but continue to order and pay for study after study until we retire. Then let someone else deal with it.”

And while Rome our forests and grasslands burn, the USFS leadership fiddles around, making only 11 or 12 large air tankers available on exclusive use contracts this fire season, 75 percent less than we had 10 years ago.

Another theory about why the USFS repeatedly pays for more studies is that they will keep doing it until an “unbiased” outside expert submits a result that the agency silently is hoping for. For example, the 2010 Rand report recommended an emphasis on scooper air tankers. But the USFS has never awarded an exclusive use contract for scoopers, unless the two that USFS Chief Tom Tidwell referred to when he testified before Congress on March 6 turn out to be exclusive use. (He may have been referring to the two CL-215 scoopers that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has had on contract.)

It is a common belief that USFS leaders have a strong bias against scoopers, even though many agencies have had great success with them, including: Los Angeles County, Minnnesota, North Carolina, Department of Interior, Canada, and several countries in Europe. According to the Rand report, when a suitable body of water is reasonably close, a scooper can deliver more gallons onto a fire and at a much lower annualized cost than a conventional air tanker or a large helicopter, especially when considering the cost of retardant, which ran $1.97 per gallon on the Fourmile fire in Colorado in 2010.

On a news program today someone described military officers as being decisive. My first thought was that effective managers and leaders in the fire service are decisive. (As proof, I offer the 2008 Sprint-Nextel commercial.) I’ve worked with hundreds of them. Then I thought about the inability of the U.S. Forest Service leadership to make a decision about a specific and detailed long term air tanker strategy.

The White House declares Open Government – except for the U. S. Forest Service?

I can’t find anything in this new 62-page solicitation that says the information submitted will remain private, secret, proprietary, or confidential — or, that the public is likely to be confused by its disclosure. I will be very interested to see if the U.S. Forest Service treats this report, like the Rand report, as secret as the information held in the vaults of the CIA. Mr. Tidwell and Tom Harbour, USFS Director of Fire and Aviation, should remember that the cover-up is worse than the original crime.

Open Government, President Obama
From the White House’s web site:

The principles of Open Government, as described by Mr. Tidwell’s boss, do not necessarily apply to the operations of the CIA, but the U.S. Forest Service is in a very different category.

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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.

13 thoughts on “USFS to pay for another air tanker study”

  1. You forgot to mention the 2000 study on the need for very large air tankers. When it was shown that the IL-76 Waterbomber was the only plane available at the time to meet that need, the study was quickly dropped. The USFS continues to refuse to allow the IL-76 to compete for U.S. contracts. Nor would it allow the planes to assist on the Los Alamos fire, in time to save the nuclear labs from destruction, when the planes were offered for free. It is clearly time to get rid of the entire USFS aviation “leadership” and start over with leaders who are willing to think outside the box rather than bury their collective heads in the sand.

      1. Hi Bill,

        Maybe the labs weren’t completely destroyed but, with an estimated loss of one billion dollars, I don’t think they were left in great shape. Two IL-76s were readied for takeoff in time to stop the fires from hitting the labs (and the more than 400 homes that were ultimately destroyed), but they were turned back by the USFS.

        1. *sigh*
          On May 10, 2000, the day the Cerro Grande fire spread into the town of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the winds were recorded at 50 mph gusting to 75. During conditions like that, every aerial firefighting resources would be grounded for safety. And, even if they could fly, dropped retardant or water would be blown sideways into the next county, being completely ineffective.

          And, the $1 billion figure is for all of the documented direct economic impacts for all areas affected by the fire, not just in the LANL.

          So, I’m sorry, but a dozen of your Russian air tankers, no matter how many gallons they can carry, could not have prevented the extensive damage to structures during the Cerro Grande fire.

          As I and many others keep saying, air tankers are one tool in the tool box. They don’t put out fires. Firefighters on the ground do. Under certain conditions, air tankers can SLOW the spread of a fire, making it easier for firefighters to STOP the spread. And, during other conditions, air tankers are the wrong tool and are completely ineffective.

          During 50 mph winds gusting to 75 mph, an air tanker is the wrong tool.

          1. I’ve flown air tanker missions on the IL-76 all over the world, and we have never failed to extinguish the fires, even in high wind situations. The planes had been offered to New Mexico several days BEFORE the winds reached their peak.

          2. I keep reading that airtankers do not put out fires, firefighters on the ground put out fires.

            Do helicopters with buckets or waterscooping aircraft put out fires?

  2. Bill,

    Give Tony Vergnetti a call at Federal Employees Defense Services.

    He might be willing to give you some info on getting the Forest Service to release the study.

    Most likely all it would take is a “lawyer letter”. At the minimum they should be releasing a redacted copy


    Those 215’s ande ‘415’s are ground fill aircraft fill too

    So to introduce ANOTHER USFS bias towards these aircraft doesn’t hold water

    Uhhh, pun intended

  4. No Johnny

    The land management types are so far removed that they are initiating another study that private industry could have spelled out, as you indicated

    USFS is putting out the solicitation not the elected officials. So who is it that is far removed?

    Hopefully Feinstein and others can see through this lack of humor and start some real stuff on this very subject.

    Johnny, somebody here or out there in the world would say your idea was too simple but in terms would be about right. But you have professionals out there that ride airplanes more than they fly ’em that are running things, and therein lies the problem……….

  5. This “study and study” again thing is ludicrous. Who (a name) is the person who opens the throttle to this runaway train carrying taxpayers money.
    Are elected officials that far removed from reality to allow this to continue? Let private industry provide the tankers. Reopen and staff a least one 3000 gallon turbine fixed wing tanker at those air tanker bases that have been abandon. Two 3000 gallon fixed wing turbine tankers at bases that are currently in service. Eliminate “plane needs a day off” seven day coverage. Establish three VLAT exclusive use contracts. Bases at Sacramento, Boise and to be determined by fire weather. Initiate a dispatch system that emphasises immediate effective response to a potentially threating wildfire or a fire that is threating the wildlands. Now that wasn’t so hard was it?

  6. Keep up the good work, Bill!!

    Either this stuff is getting funnier by the day or we have REALLY been introduced to the Peter Principle!!


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