Poll: how to improve the air tanker fleet

We have previously documented the current state of the federal air tanker fleet:

The air tanker fleet managed by the U.S. Forest Service, NPS, BIA, BLM, and USFWS, has deteriorated over the last 10 years from 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts to the 11 we have today. As the climate changes, fire seasons are getting longer. Last year there were records set in Arizona and New Mexico for the largest fires in the states’ histories. In March of this year fires burning in Colorado and South Dakota competed for scarce air and ground firefighting resources. The number of unfilled orders for air  tankers continues to increase. Congress regularly reduces the firefighting budgets of the land management agencies.

What do you recommend?

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What changes would you make to the federal air tanker program in the United States?

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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. Google+

23 thoughts on “Poll: how to improve the air tanker fleet”

  1. Bill,

    I may be young and nieve, but why not move back to a plan of fire use instead of suppression??? In my opinion, this seems to have disappeared recently. Keep tankers in areas with high WUI risk, and utilize less ground resources in truely wildland areas… Just to “keep things in check”. Of course the risks are still there, see Pagami Creek. But aren’t we paid to make tough, sound decisions??


    1. Young Buck – NIFC stopped tracking Fire Use fires after 2008. For the 10 years before that, the number of acres burned each year was steadily increasing but was still a fraction of those that burned in full suppression fires. The NIFC report for 2011 has some info on this on page 28. The number of locations where you can let a fire burn with minimal suppression for weeks or months at a time are very limited. And it takes a team of VERY smart and VERY experienced people to manage a fire use fire. Those people are becoming increasing rare. Mistakes and errors in judgement can lead to catastrophic results, while success gets little notice.

  2. When wildfire broke out in Bastrop County, Texas over Labor Day weekend last year, the lack of an air tanker was a major problem. The fire broke out on 9/4, and the DC-10 didn’t arrive until 9/6, and could not be deployed immediately due to the need for crew rest. By the time it was loaded and airborne, most of the 1,700 homes destroyed in the conflagration had already been lost. Our site emphasizes prevention, but we’re planning a lot of coverage on the air tanker issue to get people to realize that prevention and early detection are more important than ever. We fully support a fifty-tanker fleet, stipends for contractors on standby and the full gamut. Across-the-board budget slashing is leaving millions of people now living in the wildland-urban interface at the mercy of the most merciless of natural calamities.

    1. PS Those interested can either click on my name above or search for Prevent Texas Wildfires on facebook to get to our facebook page. Thanks for the great work you’re doing. Our country has the resources to protect people’s lives and property. We need to find the will and get over the idea that “government is the problem.” Our grandparents sure didn’t feel that way!

    2. Correction: 10 Tanker was never used on the Bastrop fire. The fires started on the 4th, 10 Tanker arrived on the 6th, was still grounded on the 8th, and left to fight a fire near Conroe, Texas on the 9th.

  3. This is basically a wish list with a couple jabs at the agency. I think the real question is how to pay sustainably for what we actually need?

  4. A poll? Really? This is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen! A poll?…. I’m sure that this “poll” will change the minds of USFS (and let’s be clear… This is wholly a USFS issue) to make a move towards better aerial protection…, right? If Congress has not made a change, why prey tell, would you thing a poll would? Why bother? Not sure that anyone has figured it out…. They don’t care…

  5. BASTROP is an excellent example of why we need to monitor dangerous fire weather in the wildlands (interface) regardless if it is on or near national lands. Over 10 million residences (minus 1700) live in the U.S. are at risk when the weather turns hot and dry in those areas. Recently Colorado is a good example of a system that is broke. Fixed wing air tankers don’t put out fires. However a case study is Cal Fires aggressive 9-1-1 call and respond when fire weather is present. Twenty to Forty times a day this senario playes out State wide. Can’t say it enough, an effective air program doesn’t cost. What cost is weeks of suppression (management) on just one incident. What was the Fed bill for emergency fire mangement 2011, a very slow fire season for most, $1.2 billion? A few weeks ago two diagrams for change were written by two aviation fire managers that represented 99 years of experience combined. Each person did not know the other was on the same mission. The results were almost identical. The Looking Glass Report and Treatise. The reports both call for a national fixed wing air tanker agency supported by the private sector tanker operators. Evergreen Aviation, super tanker company, did an excellent report on suppression cost savings a few years ago. Not all fires can be contained in the I.A., extended attack period. But those fires that are not allowed to escalate into the second burning period, the cost savings is enormous!

  6. According to the Spokesperson at Evergreen Aviation, on the fires in Texas, they offered their services of their 2 – 747 Supertankers that can carry up to 20,000 gallons of Fire Fighting Agent to USFS. USFS turned them down, telling them that they had everything under control, just before the town of Bastrop went up in Flames. There was a Congressional Inquiry.

    1. Dale, as far as I know, Evergreen has never had more than one 747 Supertanker. 10 Tanker Air Carrier has had as many as two DC-10 very large air tankers. I don’t know how many they still have that are operational, since the USFS has only offered them a call when needed contract.

      1. Bill, Evergreen Aviation in fact has Two 747 Airtankers, Tail Numbered 947 and 979. The DC-10’s carry 11,600 gallons, with a single drop Capability. The 747 carries 45,000 Gallons and can Deliver Multiple Drops in Various Locations.

        1. Correction on last Post. Between the Two 747 Supertankers, 40,000 Gallons Capacity @ 20,000 Each.

          1. Dale. I just talked with Kelvin Johnson of Evergreen, and he confirmed that there is only one Evergreen 747 air tanker. However, during development the one system was used in two different aircraft. The single 747 Supertanker, with a 20,000-gallon capacity, still exists and has not been dismantled (yet), but does not have a contract with any fire management agency.

            Also, I talked with Rick Hatton about his two DC-10s, and they CAN and do split their loads.

  7. My wish is that every funded IA airtanker base had at least one airtanker (Type 1 or 2) on the tarmac.

    In the ‘days of old’ (prior to 2002), most airtanker bases had their IA tankers on the ground and ready for IA unless they were being used for extended attack elsewhere.

    Nowadays, there is no such thing as an IA federal airtanker. They are mostly shuttled around for “large fire support”.

  8. I look at SEATs as good initial attack aircraft then supported/replaced with bigger aircraft as they become aviliable on a fire incident.

    SEATs have quick response times, need only a small strip or road and a water source to make multiple quick drops. Their logistical needs are also much less.

    Perhaps the best part is they are in current production as ag aircraft and need only conversion to fire use at a fraction of the cost of larger aircraft.

  9. Just to confuse the issue of “whats next” in aerial fire fighting, the Air Tractor 802 Fire Boss (amphibious SEAT) seems to have gain considerable popularity in the oveseas markets. Con Air of Canada last time I counted operates 20, Spain 33, fire fighting Air Tractors operate in about a dozen countries. Israel’s NEW air attack program selected a mix of 802’s land and water, seven total. Although the 802 F SEAT is seen over fires in the U.S, the Fire Boss has not really made its stage call. Is there a small lake or river near Bastrop, Texas? I think were “missing the boat” on this one.

  10. @ken
    I like your wishlist. Count the number of tankers on the ground at one time on the Fox tankerbase Tshirt! (Dave Kelly photo)

  11. if they wanna improve the fleet, why not buy a coupla them WaGATs? that oughta do the trick!

  12. Abject misuse of our military and National Guard is the main issue.

    We have 50 states. Having three giant tankers (L-1011 to C-5-A size) per state (150 total) built from the ground up for fire fighting is the least we can do. They can lend them from state to state on an as needed basis. The highly qualified and experienced military can and should run the whole show, advised by wildfire experts.

    That being said, getting the first large air drop in as soon as possible is critical.

    No aircraft that is already war weary should be converted, as there are too many kinds and degrees of stress and wear that can not be easily found or quantified. If our brave men and women volunteer for this dangerous duty, the LEAST we can do is have them operate in the most modern, safe and well equipped aircraft our nation can produce.

  13. Al
    Agreed BUT this may have something to do with it…


    The Economy Act of 1932, as amended, 31 U.S.C. § 1535, permits Federal Government agencies to purchase goods or services from other Federal Government agencies or other major organizational units within the same agency. An Economy Act purchase is permitted only if: (1) amounts for the purchase are actually available, (2) the purchase is in the best interest of the Government, (3) the ordered goods or services cannot be provided by contract from a commercial enterprise, i.e., the private sector, as conveniently or cheaply as could be by the Government, and (4) the agency or unit to fill the order is able to provide or get by contract the ordered goods or services.

    The Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), 48 CFR 17.5 provides further requirements for Economy Act agreements. The FAR provides that an order cannot be placed under the Economy Act if a more specific statutory authority exists. Purchases pursuant to the Economy Act are not exempt from the requirements of 48 CFR 7.3, “Contractor Versus Government Performance.” Thus, OMB Circular A-76 applies to Economy Act agreements. Economy Act agreements must achieve full cost recovery, and there is no law that permits a waiver of this full cost recovery requirement. Full cost recovery includes direct and indirect costs. Further, the Economy Act does not allow a Federal agency or unit to receive a profit when providing goods or services.

    The FAR states that Economy Act orders must include (1) a description of the supplies or services required; (2) delivery requirements; (3) a funds citation; (4) a payment provision; and (5) acquisition authority as may be appropriate. Further, each Economy Act order shall be supported by a Determination and Finding (D&F). The D&F shall state that: (1) Use of an interagency acquisition is in the best interest of the Government; and (2) the supplies or services cannot be obtained as conveniently or economically by contracting directly with a private source. If the Economy Act order requires contracting action by the servicing agency, the D&F shall also include a statement that at least one of the following circumstances is applicable: (1) the acquisition will appropriately be made under an existing contract of the servicing agency, entered into before placement of the order, to meet the requirements of the servicing agency for the same or similar supplies or services; (2) the servicing agency has capabilities or expertise to enter into a contract for such supplies or services which is not available within the requesting agency; or (3) the servicing agency is specifically authorized by law or regulation to purchase such supplies or services on behalf of other agencies. The D&F must be approved by a contracting officer of the requesting agency with authority to contract for the supplies or services to be ordered, or by another official designated by the agency head, except that, if the servicing agency is not covered by the FAR, approval of the D&F may not be delegated below the senior procurement executive of the requesting agency.

    NOTE: Agreements are subject to legal review and clearance in accordance with your office’s policies and procedures. For advice on whether a certain transaction should be undertaken pursuant to the Economy Act or some other authority, contact the General Law Division, Office of the Assistant General Counsel for Administration, at (202) 482-5391.

    But after losing one later C130 this week…maybe the USFS ought to cough up the dinero to replace the lost C130 for THEIR mission.

    Agreed about the military and their expertise BUT the USFS can NOT have it both ways and expect combatant commanders to give up their MC aircraft.

    Eight MAFFS aircraft are not alot and the accident rate with military wildland firefighting is relatively low, and that what the agencies will start touting next….

    The US Congress needs to force the USFS into thinking by direct pressure through further reductions in their budgets if they can not get it together in the next 1-2 years.

    At approx 20 -35 million piece, even with low accident rates, the USAFRes and Air Guard should not have to shoulder this mission and replace aircraft and parts unless the using agencies (LMA’s) are forced to pay the ENTIRE amount of flight hours and aircraft replacement costs….after alll it was supporting USFS mission and not a truly DoD defense mission. Understandably, it is a DoD / USFS MOU MOA process but

    IF CAL Fire can operate GOCO then it is bout time the USFS either puts up or SHUTS up about ownership or operation of an aircraft fleet.

    IF you are not smart enough, have enough smarts to budget for aircraft, can not come up with a true cost analysis to build a fleet of non military aircraft, to support those aircraft…….you ought not either depend on DoD assets or others if there is not a coherent plan

    2012 is one fine example of 60 years worth o\f not even trying to plan coherently!

    To depend on eight miltary aircraft while there are plenty of VLAT’s out there to flatten dead timber, anyhow, and to close down an entire operation (spell Aero Union) based on “issues” at Abilene/ Bastrop TX last year shows PURE hypocrisy on supporting the aerial fire mission for the US based on “sound forestry management” whether is is a State or Federally run forestry program!!!!

    1. Aero Union was already shutdown by the time the Bastrop fire broke in September. Would you consider 3 VLATs plenty, considering only one is currently being used?

  14. National forest service should look at the California air program…..it works very well and there are bases for the pilots!!!!

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