Forest Service now offers one-year contracts for air tankers

This may be a result of inadequate funding for firefighting by the Administration and Congress

(Originally published at Fire Aviation.)

number of large air tankers under exclusive use contract
The number of large air tankers under exclusive use contract by the U.S. federal government, 2000 through 2018, at the beginning of the wildfire season.

The U.S. federal government has taken steps over the last 16 years that have reduced the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 44 in 2002 to 13 in 2018. After the wings fell off two air tankers in 2002 killing five crew members, the Forest Service, the agency responsible for managing the program, began cancelling contracts for World War II and eventually Korean War vintage aircraft that had been converted to fight fire.

BAe-146 dropping on the Bryant Fire
BAe-146 dropping on the Bryant Fire in Oregon, June 21, 2014. Photo by Chris Friend, ODF.

There was no substantial effort to rebuild the fleet until 11 years later when the USFS began awarding contracts for “next generation” air tankers. A few years after that the last of the 50-year old P2V tankers were retired. Following the half-hearted attempt at rebuilding the program, the total number of tankers on contract rose to 20 in 2016 and 2017, but by 2018 had dropped to 13.

The policies being implemented recently could further reduce the number in the coming years.

In 2016 the USFS awarded a one-year exclusive use contract for two water scoopers, with the option for adding four additional years. In 2017 at the end of the second year the USFS decided to not extend the contract for 2018. But during the 2018 fire season they hired the scoopers on a Call When Needed (CWN) basis. An analysis Fire Aviation completed in February, 2018 found that the average cost to the government for CWN large air tankers is much more than Exclusive Use aircraft that work for an entire fire season. The daily rate is 54 percent higher while the hourly rate is 18 percent higher.

The practice of advertising one-year contracts is now metastasizing, with the solicitation issued by the USFS on December 3 for one-year contracts for “up to five” large air tankers. These potential contracts also have options for four additional years, but could, like the scoopers, be cancelled or not extended at the discretion of the USFS. If the agency decides to award contracts for five aircraft, it would bring the total up to 18.

Earlier this year the USFS shut down the program that was focused on converting seven former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers. Now they are being moved to the aircraft boneyard in Arizona until the planes can be transferred to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as required in legislation in August. From 2016 to the summer of 2018 one of the HC-130H’s was used occasionally on fires with a borrowed retardant tank temporarily installed.

Air tankers are very expensive to purchase and retrofit. Most of the jet-powered tankers being used today before being converted were retired from their original mission and are decades old, but two models of scooper or large air tankers can be purchased new. The CL-415 amphibious scooper cost about $37 million in 2014 but Bombardier stopped building them in 2015, and the new owner of the business, Viking, has not resumed manufacturing the aircraft. A new Q400 can be ordered from Bombardier with an external retardant tank for around $34 million.

Most air tanker operators in the United States prefer to buy retired airliners like the BAe-146,  DC-10, or variants of the C-130 and convert them to carry and dispense retardant. Retrofitting alone runs into the millions. Few if any vendors can simply write a check to purchase and convert an air tanker, so they have to convince a lender to give them large sums of money usually even before they have a contract with the USFS. With this new one-year contract policy, obtaining those funds could be even more difficult.

Below is an excerpt from the Missoulian:

“They’re only offering a one-year contract,” said Ron Hooper, president of Missoula-based Neptune Aviation. “We can’t go to the bank with a one-year contract to finance airplanes. They just laugh at us.”

Even if a vendor received a guaranteed five-year contract it can be difficult to establish and implement a long-term business plan that would make sense to their banker and the solvency of the company.

The province of Manitoba just awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

If the occurrence of wildfires was rapidly declining, reducing the air tanker fleet would make sense. However everyone knows the opposite is happening.

Annual wildfire acres burned United States
Annual wildfire acres burned in United States, excluding Alaska.

In the 1970s the average size of a wildfire in the U.S. was 20 acres. That has increased every decade since, bringing the average in the 2010s up to 117 acres.

Average size wildfires decade 1970-2018

More acres are burning and the fires are growing much larger while the Administration and Congress reduces the capability of the federal agencies to fight fires.

For the last several years Congress has appropriated the same amount of funds for the U.S. Forest Service, for example. But meanwhile, it costs more to pay for wages, fire trucks, office expenses, travel, and more expensive but safer more reliable air tankers. This leaves less money for everything including vegetation management, prescribed burning, fire prevention, salaries, and firefighting aircraft.

In addition to the reduction in air tankers, the largest and most efficient helicopters, Type 1’s such as the Air Crane, were cut two years ago by 18 percent, from 34 to 28.

In 2017 the number of requests for Type 1 helicopters on fires was close to average, but the number of orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) was almost double the number of filled orders. In 2017, 60 percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

number type 1 helicopters firefighting order requests filled
Aircraft can’t put out fires, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread of a fire enough to allow firefighters on the ground to move in and put them out.

It might be easy to blame the USFS for the cutbacks in fire suppression capability, but a person in the agency’s Washington headquarters who prefers to not have their name mentioned said it is a result of a shortage of funds appropriated by Congress. The Administration’s request for firefighting in the FY 2019 budget calls for 18 large air tankers and intends to maintain the 18 percent reduction in Type 1 helicopters, keeping that number at only 28 for the third year in a row.

What can be done?

These one-year firefighting aircraft contracts need to be converted to 10-year contracts, and the number of Type 1 helicopters must be restored to at least the 34 we had for years.

In addition to aircraft, the federal agencies need to have much more funding for activities that can prevent fires from starting and also keep them from turning into megafires that threaten lives, communities, and private land. More prescribed burning and other fuel treatments are absolutely necessary.

The only way this will happen is if the President and Congress realize the urgency and pass and sign the legislation. The longer we put this off the worse the situation will become as the effects of climate change become even more profound.

wildfires climate change
The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. Source: adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016.

TBT: Time to Think

For Throwback Thursday, we’re revisiting an article we wrote August 9, 2008, titled “Time to Think”.


When I walked into Bill Supernaugh’s office one day in 1995 I found him looking out the window with his feet up on his desk. I was the Fire Management Officer and had an appointment with the Assistant Superintendent of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to brief him about the prescribed fire we were going to ignite in the park in a few days. I got along well with him and felt comfortable smiling and saying, “Oh sorry, I didn’t know you were busy–I’ll come back later” and half turned to walk away.

He pointed to a chair and told me to sit down. In the banter that we usually engaged in before getting around to business he explained that he was “thinking”, something that he felt was important for a manager in his position, supervising the Operations of a large workforce and a big chunk of public land. Taking time to think gave him the opportunity to mull over the issues of the day and strategize about the direction the park would take. He said a person in his position was more of a thinker than a doer.

I wanted to slink down into my chair and disappear, because what he said made perfect sense and I was giving him a hard time. I was there to brief him about a project I was going to DO, and he was going to take my information and THINK about it, then approve it, ask for more information, or give me advice about how to do it differently, or not at all.

At 5:00 a.m. on August 26, 1992 Hurricane Andrew made landfall, knocking the crap out of south Florida and four national parks including Everglades, Big Cypress, and Biscayne Bay. Early the next morning I was in a rental car south of Miami driving through Homestead trying to navigate on back roads while driving over downed power lines and other debris. The first power line was scary as hell, but then we realized there was no electricity anywhere. Navigation was difficult because all of the road and street signs and many of the usual landmarks were gone. Even someone with us that was familiar with the area was disoriented.

We were a Type 1 All-Hazard Incident Management Team with a mission to rescue park employees and restore the infrastructure. It was a huge job and after a few days as Planning Section Chief I felt a little overwhelmed, with lots to do and not enough time in the day to get it all done. In confessing my situation to our Incident Commander, Rick Gale, he said “Order the personnel you need to get the job done. You are paid to think, not do.”

Hurricane Andrew Incident Management Team
NPS Type 1 All-Risk Incident Management Team at Hurricane Andrew, southern Florida, August, 1992. Left to right: Bill Gabbert (Planning Section Chief), Steve Holder (Logistics SC), Bill Pierce (Operations SC), Marcia Blazak (Finance SC), Rick Gale (Incident Commander, sitting w/white shirt & sunglasses), Pat Tolle (Information Officer)

After that, I made time, like Bill Supernaugh, to think. Occasionally I even put my feet up on a desk.

Until he retired from the day to day operations of Microsoft, Chairman Bill Gates scheduled a twice-yearly “Think Week” ritual, where he would take a helicopter or float plane to his secret lakeside cabin and… think….by himself….barring all outside visitors. He would rarely leave the cabin during the week except for an occasional walk on the beach, having a caretaker slip him two simple meals a day at the cabin. He subsisted on the two meals, Diet Coke, and Orange Crush.

Think Week was legendary in Microsoft. Gates would pore over about 100 papers written by company executives, researchers, managers, and developers, who hoped to obtain approval for their new project, or a new direction for the organization. Comments that Gates wrote on the papers could give the green light to a new technology that millions of people would use, or send Microsoft into new markets. He had to be careful what he wrote, after finding that a casual “Hey, cool, looks good” could result in 20 people being assigned to a project.

Barack Obama appears to understand how important it is to set aside time to think. Here is part of an accidentally-captured conversation between Obama and British Conservative Party Leader, David Cameron. Cameron asks Obama if he will be taking any time off for a vacation this summer:

Mr. Cameron: Do you have a break at all?
Mr. Obama: I have not. I am going to take a week in August. But I agree with you that somebody, somebody who had worked in the White House who — not Clinton himself, but somebody who had been close to the process — said that should we be successful, that actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be …

Mr. Cameron: These guys just chalk your diary up.

Mr. Obama: Right. … In 15 minute increments and …

Mr. Cameron: We call it the dentist waiting room. You have to scrap that because you’ve got to have time.

Yes. You have to have time to think. Those of us in the emergency management business too often see time to think as a luxury we don’t have. True, at times, when split second decisions can have life-long, or even life-dependent outcomes. But when initial attack becomes extended attack morphing into a long duration incident, thinking is not a luxury. It is a necessity.

***

“All successful people men and women are big dreamers. They imagine what their future could be, ideal in every respect, and then they work every day toward their distant vision, that goal or purpose.”
― Brian Tracy, Personal Success

On 60 Minutes Chief Pimlott describes the rapid rate of spread of the Camp Fire

Camp Fire at Paradise California
Chief of CAL FIRE Ken Pimlott explains on 60 Minutes how the rapid rate of spread of the Camp Fire at Paradise, California. Screenshot from 60 Minutes video.

This is a 1 minute clip from a piece on Sunday’s edition of 60 Minutes in which Ken Pimlott, Chief of CAL FIRE, describes how the Camp Fire was growing during its first burning period at “one football field per second”. I assume he means it was consuming 1.3 acres per second which is the size of an American football field, rather than the rate of spread of the flaming front. The video shows one of those cool sand tables onto which a computer projects a spreading wildfire. They are excellent for training exercises and modeling fire behavior.

This clip was taken from a very good 10 to 15 minute piece on Sunday’s 60 Minutes about the Camp Fire, and is worth checking out. You can see the entire 42-minute show on the CBS website including the section on the fire, but you’ll have to watch the commercials.

List of unaccounted for in Camp Fire reduced to 11

Businessman gives $1,000 to each student at Paradise High School

Camp Fire Paradise area
Camp Fire, Paradise area. Butte County photo.

After reaching a high of more than 1,300 people, the number that are unaccounted for in the Camp Fire near Paradise, California has shrunk to just 11. Below are the last names, first names, age and  location if known:

  1. Baker, Harriett, Oroville
  2. Banks, Darla
  3. Casilla, John, 50-60, Paradise
  4. Cody, Florence, Paradise
  5. Demianew, John, 54, Paradise
  6. Fabila-Martinez, Sara, 50, Paradise
  7. Krug, Wendy, 46, Paradise
  8. Ruel, Devon, Chico
  9. Saubaysa (Sabalsa), Noe (Alejandro), 23
  10. Sparks, Johnm, Paradise
  11. Tafoya, Noelle

The Sheriff’s Office asks those who are listed and are safe to call the missing persons call center at 530-538-6570, 530-538-7544 or 530-538-7671.

The number of fatalities has been reduced to 85 after, according to the sheriff’s office,“remains originally thought to be separate cases have since been proved by DNA to be the same case.”

To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the Camp Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.

Of the 85 dead, three remain unidentified. Of those identified, 43 have been “positively identified,” with the rest still tentative, sometimes based on circumstantial evidence.

A San Diego businessman has given $1,000 checks to students and staff at Paradise High School.

Robert S. Wilson
Robert S. Wilson

From NPR:

“A San Diego businessman wanted to do something to help young people affected by the Camp Fire, which decimated the city of Paradise, Calif., earlier this month.

“So Bob Wilson came with two suitcases full of $1,000 checks – enough for each of Paradise High School’s 980 students and 105 staff members, including teachers, janitors and bus drivers.

“On a rainy Tuesday night, the students and staff from a town now dispersed showed up at nearby Chico High School, where Wilson handed out the checks — $1.1 million in all, according to The Associated Press.

“Wilson, 90, made his money in commercial real estate and shopping centers, and he’s also a partner in operating six Fish Market restaurants in California.”

Wildfire potential, December through March

December wildfire outlook potential

On December 1 the Predictive Services section at the National Interagency Fire Center issued their Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for December through March. The data represents the cumulative forecasts of the ten Geographic Area Predictive Services Units and the National Predictive Services Unit.

If their analysis is correct, the only area with above normal wildfire activity during the period will be Hawaii. Southern California has dropped out of the very active prediction category.

Below:

  • An excerpt from the NIFC narrative report for the next several months;
  • More of NIFC’s monthly graphical outlooks;
  • NOAA’s three-month temperature and precipitation forecasts; and,
  • Drought Monitor.

“Much Climatologically speaking, fire activity during the winter months, December through February, is at a minimum. Areas most susceptible to activity are generally restricted to the southeastern states where periodic increases in fire activity are possible during dry periods until spring greenup begins. However, current data and expected trends in precipitation suggest that large fire potential will be Below Normal in this region. The abundance of moisture should keep fuels in most areas from becoming critically dry. Drought forecasts project that the region should remain mostly free of drought. In March, short duration wind events can trigger grassfire activity across the southern Great Plains while the fuels are receptive prior to greenup. This is considered normal and some activity is expected entering spring.

“The ongoing weak El Niño event will lead to an overall below average snowpack west of the Continental Divide this winter except possibly across the southern Rockies where above average precipitation is expected. Snowpack deficits along the Divide will likely be buffered by northeasterly flow events as fronts drop south into the country from central and northern Canada.

“Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) surrounding the Hawaiian Islands range from half a degree to 2 degrees Celsius above average. Average temperatures throughout the region are expected to continue to be slightly above average through March. Rainfall was above normal in October but dropped off sharply in November. The official outlook for Hawai’i follows historic correlations, calling for below average rainfall from December through the spring months. Fuel loading has been above average since last spring, and fire activity was above average during the drier portions of the summer. Therefore, as dry weather continues Significant Fire Potential will increase to Above Normal in December and remain there through March and likely beyond.”

January wildfire outlook potential
Continue reading “Wildfire potential, December through March”