RAND releases their air tanker report

CL-215, CL-415
CL-215 and CL-415 air tankers scoop water from Snowbank Lake while working on the 2011 Pagami Creek fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. Photo by Kristi Marshall for the Superior National Forest

The RAND Corporation has released their long-delayed report that that U.S. Forest Service commissioned on air tankers. The company completed the study in August, 2010, but the USFS refused to release it even after receiving a Freedom of Information Act Request, 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” and that the USFS wanted “to protect against public confusion that might result from premature disclosure.”

In April we compiled a history of the $840,000 RAND report. This was the fifth study on air tankers since 1996. A sixth one is underway now, commissioned, again, by the USFS, but paid for, again, by the U.S. taxpayers.

But RAND released the study today, which includes a heavy emphasis on scooper air tankers which can fill their tanks with water while skimming over a lake. RAND recommends “15 to 30 scoopers to be used in conjunction with two to six air tankers and a comparable number of 2,700-gallon helicopters”.

A summary of the report is below. The entire report can be found on their web site.



The U.S. Forest Service should upgrade its large airborne firefighting fleet to include more amphibious scooper aircraft, with air tankers and helicopters in a supporting role during the initial attack of fires before they become large, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation.

Scoopers and air tankers are large aircraft used to drop large amounts of water or fire retardant on wildfires to assist on-the-ground firefighters in containing fires. Scoopers drop water while air tankers drop retardant. The Forest Service (an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) supplies many of the large aircraft used to fight wildland fires on federal and state lands.

“Because scoopers cost less and can make multiple water drops per hour when water sources are nearby, we found that the most cost-effective firefighting fleet for the Forest Service will have more scoopers than air tankers for the prevention of large fires,” said Edward G. Keating, lead author of the study and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “However, air tankers are important in an ancillary role in initial attack for the minority of wildfires where water sources are not nearby, and possibly for fighting large fires as well.”

The U.S. Forest Service has been trying to determine the best composition of aircraft to replace its aging air fleet for several years. Its fleet includes leased former military air tankers that date back to the 1950s. These older aircraft have been failing, with two fatal crashes in 2002 and two accidents in June 2012, one of which was fatal. Several weeks ago, legislation was finalized allowing the Forest Service to move forward with contracts for seven new tankers.

In 2009, the Forest Service hired RAND to study the composition of a mix of air tankers, scoopers and helicopters that minimized total “social costs,” including the costs of wildfires — such as costs associated with destroyed property and fire suppression — and the costs of aircraft. Two prior studies conducted by the Forest Service were deemed insufficient for justifying major acquisitions by the federal Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Agriculture Inspector General.

Wildfire suppression costs have increased dramatically since 2000, currently averaging about $1.65 billion per year. Part of this rise is because residential development has expanded into areas that were previously wilderness, but it also may be a consequence of changes in weather and the accumulation of burnable wood and grasslands created by many years of aggressive wildland fire suppression, experts say.

The RAND study estimates the average social cost of a large wildfire at $3.3 million. Half of the fires cost less than $1 million and 10 percent cost more than $10 million. Fires near populated areas can be vastly more costly than fires in isolated regions. Large aircraft can help prevent these expensive large fires, easily justifying their annual cost if their activities account for the prevention of just a few large fires each year.

The RAND study focused on 1,500-gallon and 3,000-gallon air tankers, 1,600-gallon scoopers, and 1,200-gallon and 2,700-gallon helicopters. The Forest Service asked RAND not to include very large air tankers, like converted 747s or DC-10s, which can carry tens of thousands of gallons of retardant. The study also excluded smaller aircraft that carry fewer than 1,000 gallons of water or retardant.

Historically, the Forest Service’s fleet of large firefighting aircraft has been composed primarily of air tankers and helicopters. Air tankers primarily carry fire retardant, which has advantages over water, but is also much more costly. There also are environmental concerns about the retardant. The key advantage of air tankers is their ability to support firefighting operations that may be far from the water sources needed by scoopers and helicopters.

Scoopers can be used in areas where there is ready access to large bodies of water. Although current models cannot carry loads as large as air tankers, scoopers can cycle back and forth between bodies of water and a fire, making multiple drops an hour. This compares to about 1.5 drops per hour for an air tanker, which must fly back to a runway and load more retardant before returning to the fire.

Helicopters also have the advantage of being able to make multiple trips in a short amount of time, and helicopters can make precise water drops. But helicopters have a limited range, fly slower than scoopers or air tankers, are less effective in mountainous areas, and cost more to acquire and maintain than scoopers on a per-gallon-delivered basis.

The total annual capital and operating costs per aircraft range from approximately $2.8 million for a 1,600-gallon scooper to $7.1 million for a 3,000-gallon air tanker, before factoring in the cost of fire retardant, Keating said.

Helicopters can use bodies of water as small as 12 feet in diameter. Scoopers need larger bodies of water, generally ranging from a quarter of a mile to eight-tenths of a mile in length, depending on obstacles adjacent to the water. RAND researchers found that at least two-thirds of the fires studied have been within 10 miles of a body of water that appeared to meet scoopers’ requirements, and about 80 percent of fires have been within five miles of water bodies that would accommodate helicopters.

The RAND report was delayed twice because the Forest Service and RAND agreed to develop a second analysis drawing on a Forest Service analytical tool called the Fire Program Analysis (FPA) system. As a result, the RAND study developed two separate, but complementary, simulation models to evaluate the effectiveness of fleet mix options. One is simpler and allows for better evaluation of the influence of model assumptions, while the other rests on Forest Service assumptions built into Fire Program Analysis system.

“While the two models yielded different estimates of optimal fleets, both approaches suggested a predominant role for scoopers,” Keating said.

Another finding of the study was the importance of efficient prepositioning of aircraft to meet the next day’s firefighting needs and what the researchers termed “dispatch prescience.”

When aircraft can be correctly and flexibly prepositioned, fewer are needed. Further, if aircraft dispatch can be optimized — that is, when they can be sent to just those fires where they make the difference between having a large fire or not — fewer aircraft would be needed. The Forest Service could dramatically reduce its aviation costs if it could increase dispatch prescience and prepositioning accuracy.

“We think there may be an opportunity for the Forest Service to improve its aircraft location and dispatch algorithms, and possibly reduce aviation costs considerably,” Keating said.

The study does not recommend a specific number of aircraft, but provides a framework for the Forest Service to rebuild its fleet. Variables include how many days the aircraft would spend at particular base locations, the value of preventing certain fires and how accurately dispatchers can determine what kind of fire the Forest Service is facing. The range of solutions is on the order of 15 to 30 scoopers to be used in conjunction with two to six air tankers and a comparable number of 2,700-gallon helicopters.

The study, “Air Attack Against Wildfires: Understanding U.S. Forest Service Requirements for Large Aircraft,” can be found at www.rand.org. Other authors of the study are Andrew Morral, Carter Price, Dulani Woods, Daniel Norton, Christina Panis, Evan Saltzman and Ricardo Sanchez.

Research for the study was conducted under the auspices of the RAND Homeland Security and Defense Center, which conducts analysis to prepare and protect communities and critical infrastructure from natural disasters and terrorism. Center projects examine a wide range of risk management problems, including coastal and border security, emergency preparedness and response, defense support to civil authorities, transportation security, domestic intelligence programs, technology acquisition and related topics.


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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.

40 thoughts on “RAND releases their air tanker report”

  1. Wow, that is really an eye opening new concept report! Who would have thought of scooper aircraft? Maybe the report forgot that portions of the Southwest there are still vast areas of little water sources for scooping. The report doesn’t address that the fire mission should focus on delivering retardant to the fire fighter on the line in large enough gallonage quickly enough to significantly change the outcome of a fire. Instead the report reflects hauling small loads all day (probably the next day) which will not effect a fires outcome. Next report please.

    1. Johnny Coldwater. I agree. This is nothing new.
      Initial Attack. The key. Period. Fewer Airtankers not
      more? Scoopers are fine in the proper context.
      Also who makes a decision on the use of tankers.?
      A scooper in Nevada? Arizona? Thinking Battle Mnt.
      Nevada and the Sagebrush Sea that surrounds the
      Not impressed…

  2. Johnny Coldwater and TG McCoy you are both correct. The Feds don’t understand that having air tankers over the fire within 30 min of initial dispatch will mean that 9 times out of 10 the fire will stay small and cost the Forest Service less in the long run.

  3. A couple of weeks ago, during the last fire I was on, the Canadian guy in our VFD told an allegedly true story of a firefighter being hit by a (dead) beaver dropped from a scooper aircraft.

    We might have been in “legend territory,” however!

    In Bill’s area, I can imagine a scooper picking up the odd jet-skier from Angostura Reservoir.

    1. You are probably joking, Chas, but so everyone knows…. The inlets for scooper aircraft are just a few inches in diameter; far to small for a beaver, scuba diver, or jet skier.

  4. Question: Can the CL-215 and CL- 415 land on runways and be filled from a tanker base? Or for that matter a hose off a hydrant. Are they designed to tke retardant?

    1. Yeah the 215’s and larger scoopers can land on runways. The 215 idea is good for that reason in itself I think.They can take advantage of lakes, larger rivers and even conventional tanker bases to reload. Retardant I don’t know about though, I’ve never seen them loaded with slurry on fires in MN.

      1. I have been told that in the old days the PBY Catalinas used to do that. They would sit loaded with Retardant then once dispatched to a fire they would lay the Retardant at the head of the fire and then would become a scooper and use the closest water source.

  5. I am sure they considered lots of SEATs in the mix but were told to leave them out along with the VLATs making for the big dud study.

  6. Water only so far in MN.


    Really folks, is this what we the taxpayer of the US were/ was waiting for….

    A “study” that was upheld for this iinformation? Scoopers, especially purpose built, are what some folks are using.

    Is this what the BIG USFS was afraid of? The admission of a RAND study? WOOOW!!!

    Like I mentioned beore….. when Paul Bremer was assigned the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) of Iraq during his 1.5 to 2 yrs there…he READ RAND reports that were critical of operations there.

    Boy….the USFS can not even fathom that recent history…but sure wants to be military like and all

    But yet can sure !@ss away 840K for a study that all us in the aviation world has been telling these USFS aviation “professionals” for YEARS!!

    Well, at least RAND has it documented now and some of the facts are hard to dispute no matter how the USFS and other LMA’s want to bend this.

    Hopefully Congress demands the 840K back under a FW and A claim…heheehhehehe

  7. Well, it only took five studies and one re-write to finally get the result they wanted all along: no more retardant. How about another study evaluating the effectiveness of water-only versus mixed use of water and retardant. CalFire probably already has the data, and it won’t support the water-only conclusion.

  8. Yeah, I agree scoopers have there place and should be reasonably represented in the mix, but also agree with reply above that this overwhelming scooper-to-heavy tanker recommendation is quite possibly a back-door way to minimize and eventually eliminate retardant use. The current ‘guide lines’ regarding (non) use of retardant anywhere near streams or rivers may well of cost the loss of 50 or so homes north of the Poudre River in the High Park fire W of Ft Collins.

  9. I cannot believe the American taxpayers had to foot the bill for this utter nonsense of a “study”.

    I don’t blame RAND Corp. … they got their “purpose and intent” marching orders for the study from the highest levels of the Forest Service.

    There ARE glaring flaws.. huge mistakes.. big “leaps of faith”.. among other simple FIREFIGHTING 101 basics that weren’t addressed. How/why RAND was chosen for the study is something that should be looked at by the GAO, OGC, and OIG.

    My gut feeling is that the “Requesting Official(s)”, “the Contracting Officer”, the “Contracting Officer’s Representative(s)”, and the “Contract Inspectors” are RESPONSIBLE.

    THIS IS A MILLION DOLLARS (+++) of wasted taxpayer money… yet again.

  10. About scoopers and retardant. For over twenty years a Super Catalina was station Columbia AAB of central Ca. It was an excellent tanker and only hauled retardant. Most scoopers are slow. This was a Fed contract. At a town meeting the Fed’s advised that the Super Cat was being eliminated and that a larger tanker was going to be placed at Stockton some 40 miles away. That lasted about four years and when no one was looking it was cut out of the air program. The base was closed, private firm provided contract retardant as needed, after the fact. Stockton was one of the most active bases in the country.

    1. Hated the Town, but Stockton was a great tanker base…. The cat “flew on the wing” and carried a fair
      load for a twin and I don’t think that the Cl-215T and 415’s can’t quite do that….

      1. TG McCoy-
        Can you clarify this statement?

        Are you seriously saying a PBY out-performs a 215T or 415. A piston 215 out-performs a PBY!

        Where is this information coming from?

  11. Actually the FS commissioned a report on Operational Evaluation of the CL215T/415 in 2008 (I think). You all can check out the brief paper at http://www.landfire.gov/documents_dataproducts.php.

    Yes the CL215T/415 can land and use retardant.
    Scoopers are slow… True of the radial engine CL-215. The 415 and upgraded Tango version travels bout 200 mph. With those upgrade engines they have a very acceptable rate of climb equal to the current line of land base ATs. With a full load and about 3 hours of fuel on board.

    Of the 29 flight circles studied in Western US, 22 have enough water sources to support scoopers and have a 15 minute load, drop and return interval. That equals 4 loads per hour for about 3.5 hours or 6400 gals per hour x 3.5 hours. One side note scooper generally work in pairs. Az, parts of Utah, NM, Nv. etc do not have enough scoop sites so where dropped form the analysis.

    Water puts out fire—a lot of water put out a lot of fire

    LA county has been using scoopers for the 10+ years and they seem to work fine in the SH5/7 fuel model. Should check out LA County’s website.
    A complementary approach to IAs using Scoopers and Land based ATs is appropriate and necessary. Scoopers can be pre-postioned to any airport with 3000 foot runway and jet A. Land based ATs are confined to larger runways and fixed ATs bases or Temp ATs.

    Scooping ATs have been around for a long time and are very effective in the direct attack mode.


    1. Here is the problem with the 215/415 -capacity.
      1650 or so gallons. Yes they are effective when water is close. Actually On several fires they have used seawater. Which is a very good retardant.
      But. Say we are in oh. SE Oregon, which is Nevada
      North. Northern AZ. New Mexico. Parts of Utah.
      One run with a P-3 at 300kts is more effective than two-or three with the Bombardier Products. because the chances of an escape are a bit greater because of turnaround time. Scoopers have their place and are effective where conditions warrant. But they aren’t a panacea. But like
      VLAT’s should be part of the toolbox…

    2. Water puts out fire? Hmmm… When I think about a scooper it reminds me of the old westerns where a building catches fire and a couple of the locals show up with a small bucket of water throw it towards the building and run away to get another small bucket of water and the building still burns to the ground. Get my point?

      1. Richard-
        I kinda see your point as an analogy to the USFS dispatching system. By the time the scooper shows up, the fire has been burning for several days and it may seem like a bucket vs. the building situation. Way too many phone calls, faxes, negotiations between forests, districts, dispatch centers, etc. etc.

        We take issue with those that say “water does not put out fire” when in fact we do it all summer long, with little if any support on the ground.

        Enjoy your phos-chek coolaid.

        1. The scoopers a few years ago kicked some serious ass on a fire near Seeley Lake, Montana. Los Angeles has used them (despite the politics) for YEARS. Of course the Canadian scoopers are not the perfect solution, but they are a nice tool in the big toolbox.

  12. No Richard I don’t get your point. I guess since LA County has been using scoopers for more than 10 years, they don’t get it as well. Also since Minnesota saw the benefits of scoopers and have since purchased their own fleet, I assume they don’t get it either. Alaska brought scoopers in to help with their fire emergency in 2005 and have not had a fire season without scoopers on contract since so I am also thinking they don’t get your point. I am a CL-415 Captain in Canada and the province I work for only uses scoopers and foam retardant. Our mandate is to stop 95% of all fires at less than 25 acres. We usually exceed that. So far this summer we have had almost 1300 fires and haven’t burned a home yet. Get my point?

    1. Easy there Gretzky aboot LA county in the last ten years how many IA fire dispatches have those scoopers gone on. Further more do you really think that a county fire especially in that area will be handled buy one or two scoopers and a few helicopters? The first multi million dollar home that goes up they will be screaming for cal fire to show up and finish the job. And don’t forget wayne you live in a area where theres a suitable body of water for your little operation every half mile. Kelly your right they do kick ass when there is two or three of them together and as you said NEAR a lake. Maybe we should just cover our whole country in water. If LA county had the option to take a 3000 gal RETARDANT tanker to a scooper you better believe they would take the retardant before they take the squirt gun. Really you don’t get my point?

  13. No I still don’t get your point! Guess I am a real slow learner cause I can’t understand why if LA County would prefer a 3000 gal retardant tanker over scoopers then why don’t they contract one instead of renewing 5 year contracts for scoopers? From the pilots I know that go down there, they tell me they see a fair bit of fire action. Can’t believe LA Fire Managers would keep paying for a squirt gun if they weren’t a benefit.

    1. A fair bit of action, yeah right eh. Aboot the only action those guys see are the bums in hollywood and the bums down at the santa montica pier. And the next time contracting comes up for LA county you guys will be the only ones bidding on it probably, because that contract isn’t worth bidding. The fact you still don’t get my point doesn’t surprise me one bit, your friend stated Phos Check Koolaid, I could care less whats in the tank as long as its not water, because if it was we would never contain sh%t, our climate is a bit different than yours wouldn’t you agree. Listen up what do you think would be more effective for fire fighters on the ground trying to build a containment line in heavy fuels around a fire and are asking for direct support. A. Four to six retardant loads from one LAT. B. you guys timing out because after every drop your turn around time is a hour plus because the closest lake is 70 miles away. If b was your answer there is on help for you. If I lived up were you are which will never happen, you guys can’t even own a gun, sure eh scooper are awesome eh. Do I need to write it in French for you to understand?

      1. Hi there airtankersrcool,
        I’ve posted this comment of yours, but since Bill Gabbert is working on a project and I’m temporarily in charge of approving comments, I’m going to tell you that you need to tone your **** down a bit. Making fun of Canadians is not okay in my book. Making fun of the L.A. county contract is also unwarranted. You are correct in that climates and terrain do influence which “tools in the box” are effective, but you’re really stretching the patience here of not just me but the other readers of this site. Canadians can’t own a gun and they all speak French? What are you smokin’ there?

        Seriously, chill out.
        Kelly (temporary guest editor)

      2. Richard, I could’nt help sounding off on this one. You sound like a complete moron. obiously you have no idea or real knowledge how fires are fought. You obviously seem to have a chip on your shoulder about the Canadians. Your little jabs are an embarasment. Its because of attitudes like yours you would be better off wearing a maple leaf on your bag rather than the Stars and Stripes travelling in other parts of the world. I’ll tell ya what, i know how we operate here. If you even had a clue how they fight there fires there you would laugh at our tactics and some of the way we operate. They mix there line builders with scoopers and really get the job done, I’ve seen it first hand. If there is no water near by they have enough tankers ( seats and LATs) for ground support and build there cat lines fast. Their tool box has way better tools than we have.You should show a little more respect. Those guys have been down here helping our mess of a situation for the last two years and doing an incredible job. The agencies in the fire operations here have been extremley happy with their efforts and proffesonalism and want them back next year if they are available. Oh, by the way if you knew anything the Canadians have the right to own fire arms. The difference is that they are required to be trained in the safe operation and have extensive background checks. They can own as many hand guns as they want but have to register those. they can have as many rifles as they want un-registerd too. If you were smart enough to have any of your facts stright you would see that per capita and population percent they have more fire arms per hundred people than we do.

        1. Thanks Bigsky! No doubt Dick has no understanding of scoopers or their capabilities. Pretty sad and frustrating when you watch as another few hundred homes are burned up on National Television and you know there is a tool that’s not being utilized that could help make a difference. It’s especially frustrating when you know people are losing everything and it’s because of old entrenched attitudes and a lack of understanding.

    2. Hi Al,
      L.A. County has been dealing with a boatload (no pun intended) of politics over the CL-415 issues for YEARS. Canadair has helped this along with their unparalleled marketing, and then there’s the media issue. This is an OLD article, but I’d guess some of it’s still valid: http://wildfirenews.com/fire/articles/cl415.html

  14. Thanks for the heads up Kelly!

    Richard just to clarify a few things. I won’t be bidding on any contracts nor will I be apart of any contracts in California nor do I really care if the whole state burns. Well I guess I do but with entrenched attitudes like yours, it makes it pretty hard to care. You don’t build line with scoopers, you use them for direct attack and have the ground crews mop up behind them. I don’t speak French and I own all kinds of guns.

    Have a nice day!

    1. @OCR, well thanks, I guess. :p
      That video clip is really old but sure worth another look. Thanks! Funny, I grew up fishing and hunting with my grandpa in Illinois, and we certainly had some adventures, but nothing quite like that one! He would have laughed for years about that …

  15. They excluded the two most cost effective aircraft to fight wildfires, The Evergreen B747 Supertanker & Air Tanker DC-10s which can drop 20,000/12,000 gals on one pass. USFS excludes them as they would put too many USFS people out of work.

    1. Nice shot, Bob. Did you read the NATS II study?
      I wrote about that back a few years ago. The cost-per-gallon was clearly in the corner of the T1 heavy helicopters, but they werre specifically excluded from that study. Interestingly enough, though, the data WAS included.

      things that make you go hmmmmmm.

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