Did closure of West Yellowstone air tanker base affect suppression of a wildfire near Bozeman, MT?

The Bridger Foothills Fire destroyed 28 homes

100-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello
100-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello. The location of the Bridger Foothills Fire is identified. Wildfire Today map.

This article was first published at Fire Aviation.

Two current or former firefighters were quoted in the Billings Gazette as asserting that the downgrading of the West Yellowstone Interagency Fire Center air tanker base in Montana to a Call When Needed base may have affected the amount of retardant applied on a recent fire near Bozeman, Montana.

200-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello
200-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello. The yellow circle is around West Yellowstone. USFS map.

Bridger Foothills Fire

The Bridger Foothills Fire that started September 4, 2020 northeast of Bozeman burned 8,224 acres and destroyed 28 homes. Three firefighters were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters September 5 when their safety became compromised by the spread of the fire. After the danger passed they moved to a safety zone and were later treated at Bozeman Health for “smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion” and then released.

West Yellowstone air tanker base

From the Billings Gazette, quoting a former smokejumper who had been based at West Yellowstone:

“The Bridger fire could have been staffed with more planes and twice the retardant dropped had West Yellowstone been used with the other bases,” said Tommy Roche, a retired wildland firefighter, in an email.

In addition to the former air tanker base at West Yellowstone, Montana, there are three other bases in that part of the country. Listed below are all four with their distances from the Bridger Foothills Fire.

  1. West Yellowstone, 73 miles
  2. Helena, 76 miles
  3. Billings, 118 miles
  4. Pocatello, 142 miles
gallons Retardant used at Air Tanker Bases
Retardant used at Air Tanker Bases in the Forest Service’s Northern Region, 2009-2018. (Screenshot from document supplied by the Custer National Forest, November 3, 2020; a letter signed by Shawna Legarza, Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service at the time)

Forest Service will not release the Conklin de Decker and Associates air tanker study

From the Billings Gazette:

A Freedom of Information Act request, filed more than a year ago by West Yellowstone airtanker base manager Billy Bennett, for the Forest Service’s airtanker study has not been fulfilled. “In my opinion, I do not believe the study exists!” Bennett wrote in an email. “No one admits to ever having seen it.”

According to documents provided to Fire Aviation by the Custer National Forest in Montana, in 2019 the Forest Service commissioned an independent analysis of next generation air tankers performance by Conklin de Decker and Associates (CdD).

We asked for a copy of the study today and were told by Forest Service Fire Communications Specialist Stanton Florea that it “…contains proprietary information. You would need to file a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act Request] with our national office.”

Forest Service did not release the RAND air tanker study

We were told the same thing after requesting and then filing a FOIA to obtain a copy of the $840,092 RAND air tanker study completed in 2012. The Forest Service refused to honor the FOIA, 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.”

RAND finally released it in 2012. Both air tanker studies were prepared at taxpayer expense.

The RAND study recommended that the U.S. Forest Service upgrade its airborne firefighting fleet to include more scooper air tankers. “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.”

Performance of the BAe-146 at West Yellowstone

In a letter signed April 4, 2019 by Shawna Legarza, who at the time was the Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service, she wrote, “Based on CdD information, the BAe-146 [air tanker] will not be able to operate from West Yellowstone unless temperatures are below 69°F”, and included the table below. She also wrote, “Retardant will not be downloaded”, meaning the BAe-146 must always carry 3,000 gallons.

The performance of the BAe-146 at West Yellowstone is due to the elevation at the base, 6,640 feet above sea level. On a warm day the thin air results in a density altitude that makes it difficult for the aircraft to take off with a full load of retardant on the 8,400-foot runway.

CdC study, retardant loads at tanker bases Northern Region
Reportedly from the CdD study, retardant loads at tanker bases Northern Region. Supplied by the Custer National Forest.

The table indicates that there would be no restrictions for the C-130, C-130Q, RJ 85, and the MD-87 air tankers, but the BAe-146 tankers operated by Neptune Aviation would not be able to carry a full 3,000-gallon load of retardant under certain conditions. The BAe-146 and the RJ 85 are very similar, but the RJ 85s operated by Aero Flite have more efficient engines than the BAe-146.

Closing West Yellowstone air tanker base

The letter from Director Legarza included this:

Based on safety and efficiencies, Region 1 should consider whether any future investment into the West Yellowstone Airtanker Base is warranted. The airtanker bases in Billings and Helena, Montana, and Pocatello, Idaho are within 30 minutes flight time for a next generation airtanker and can maintain the airtanker response and capability needed for that portion of your geographic area. Additionally, a temporary airtanker base could be setup at the Bozeman, Montana airport if the fire situation in that portion of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming warranted a quicker response.

Forest Service begins to appreciate scooping air tankers

Another reason cited by the Forest Service for downgrading the West Yellowstone tanker base was the “increased use of scooper aircraft”, such as the CL-415 which can skim across a lake while scooping up to 1,600 gallons of water without having to return to an airport to reload with water or retardant. Historically the agency has been extremely reluctant to use scooping air tankers but four are currently under contract. For years they completely disregarded the RAND report’s recommendations about the efficiency of scoopers.

“The timing for the new scooper contract is this winter for the 2021 season and it is expected that Bridger Aerospace (based in Bozeman, MT) will have four turbine CL-215’s ready to bid which will add to the four CL-415’s on the current contract for a total of 8 nationally,” said Marna Daley, a Public Affairs Officer for the Custer National Forest in an email. “Regionally, Canadian scoopers are available and used through the agreement the Montana DNRC has with Canada.”

Bridger Aerospace is in the process of acquiring six old piston engine CL-215s that have been overhauled and upgraded with new turbine engines; they are designated as CL-415EAFs.

Tanker 281 Cedar Fire Nevada
Air Tanker 281, a CL-415EAF, completed over 60 water drops in support of firefighters at the Cedar Fire south of Elko Nevada on its first ever mission. Photo July 21, 2020 by K Mita, Bridger Aerospace.

West Yellowstone becomes a CWN base, dependent on portable retardant infrastructure

The West Yellowstone air tanker base is now classified by the Forest Service as a Call When Needed base. In the fall of 2019 the powder retardant was removed and the retardant mixing equipment was decommissioned according to documents supplied by the Forest Service. The base can now only be used to reload air tankers if a transportable retardant mixing plant is ordered and set up at the airport.

Forest Service’s evaluation of the use of air tankers at the Bridger Foothills Fire

In an email to Fire Aviation, Ms. Daley explained the agency’s opinion about the use of air tankers and the availability of the West Yellowstone tanker base during the Bridger Foothills Fire:

In terms of LATS (Large Air Tankers) and VLATs (Very Large Air Tankers) the Bridger Foothills Fire initial attack (day 1) and extended attack response (day 2 and day 3) was the most effective air resource response on the Custer Gallatin in 20 plus years.  There wasn’t a moment where suppression efforts were lacking a retardant response.  The ability of the Helena and Billings tanker bases to reload was unprecedented and fire managers were able to get full retardant loads on every tanker drop.  The transition of the West Yellowstone Tanker base to a call when needed base did not affect the outcome of the Bridger Foothills fire.  The base in West Yellowstone could have been opened under the Forest’s Call When Needed plan but that was not requested or needed because Helena and Billings bases were far more efficient.

Contracts announced for five additional air tankers

Brings the number of USFS air tankers on exclusive use contracts up to 18

Air Tanker 163, an RJ85
Air Tanker 163, an RJ 85, at Rapid City December 12, 2017.

The U.S. Forest Service announced on October 27 they intend to sign contracts with three companies to add five Next Generation large air tankers (LATs) to its fleet of firefighting fixed wing aircraft. If everything goes as they hope, the FS would have 18 LATs on exclusive use (EU) contracts beginning in 2021.

This contracting process for what the FS calls Next Generation 3.0 began November 19, 2018. The first attempt to award the five LAT contracts on March 26, 2020 was protested, so now seven months later they are trying again. The vendors who did not receive these new contracts will be debriefed, allowing them to ask why they were not selected. Then, if no additional protests are filed within 10 days of the October 27 announcement, actual contracts can be signed with the three contract recipients.

The companies selected for this Next Generation 3.0 contract:

  • Coulson Aviation: one B-737, Tanker #137.
  • Aero Flite: two RJ85s.
  • Erickson Aero Tanker: two MD-87s, two of these three: Tankers 102, 103, or 107

The companies will be given only a one year guaranteed contract, with the possibility of up to four more years at the discretion of the FS.

In a press release the FS claimed to have “met its goal to convert to a fully Next Generation Airtanker fleet with up to 35 airtankers .” The simple math is, there are 13 now on EU contracts, so adding five brings it up to 18. They can bring on additional LATs on Call When Needed arrangements if they are available, but in 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on EU contracts. During this COVID year when the FS needed to boost the number of LATs, they gave about seven companies hybrid CWN contracts for a total of 11 LATs that were basically EU, but for 90 days, rather than the typical 160-day EU Mandatory Availability Period. The rates they negotiated were generally less than the typical CWN rates. For a while they also activated four additional LATs on a true CWN basis, with no guarantee of days worked.

In addition to temporarily adding to the fleet by using CWN aircraft, the FS can under certain conditions use up to eight military C-130 aircraft that have been outfitted with a slip-in 3,000-gallon retardant tank, a Modular FireFighting System (MAFFS). A few more tankers have been borrowed from Canada, for example Convair 580s, Tanker 471 manufactured in 1958, and Tanker 474 manufactured in 1955.

Our opinion

The last year for the six air tankers on the Next Gen 1.0 contract will be 2022, according to my calculations. Since it takes the FS about two years to award an LAT contract, the agency should begin the process for Next Gen 4.0 immediately. If they don’t get it done, there will only be 12 LATs on EU contracts.

Next Gen 1.0 and Next Gen 2.0 were for five guaranteed years with up to five more at the discretion of the FS. The trend of the FS only issuing one year guaranteed contracts is disturbing. Last week in an interview with Fire Aviation, Dan Snyder, Senior Vice-President of Neptune Aviation, was asked about the one-year contracts:

“If that becomes the new USFS contacting model, I believe it will create a barrier to entry for other vendors due to the risks involved,” Mr. Snyder said. “It will also make long-term planning for aircraft acquisition, maintenance, training and hiring of staff, difficult even for the established vendors in aerial firefighting.”

If multiple large air tankers and helicopters could attack new fires within 20 to 30 minutes we would have fewer huge fires.

Fighting wildfires is a Homeland Security issue

The US Navy has 11 large nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that each cost $13 billion to build and carry 64 to 130 fighter jets.

Protecting our citizens and forests from wildfires is more important than sending our soldiers and trillions of dollars to fight wars in places that many people could not find on a map. Suppressing wildfires and managing federal forests to reduce the threat to our citizens is a Homeland Security issue and should be adequately funded. Firefighters need to be paid a living wage. You can’t fight fires on the cheap.

50 Type 1 Helicopters

Several years ago the largest helicopters on EU contracts, Type 1, were cut from 34 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50.

40 Large Air Tankers

Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use 10-year guaranteed contracts, not one-year contracts.

We often say, “air tankers don’t put out fires”. Under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area. If firefighters are not nearby, in most cases the flames will eventually burn through or around the retardant. During these unprecedented circumstances brought on by the pandemic, we rely more on aerial firefighting than in the past. And there must be an adequate number of firefighters available to supplement the work done from the air. It must go both ways. Firefighters in the air and on the ground supporting each other.


This article was first published at Fire Aviation.

Report released for fatal crash of C-130 air tanker in Australia

September 25, 2020  |  5:23 p.m. MDT

Flight path B134 air tanker crash

This article was first published at Fire Aviation September 24, 2020

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has released an interim report about the January 23, 2020 crash of a C-130, Air Tanker 134, that killed the three crewmembers on board. This follows the preliminary report the agency issued in February, 2020. The aircraft was known as Bomber 134 (B134) in Australia.

“The interim report does not contain findings nor identify safety issues, which will be contained in the final report. However, it does detail the extensive evidence gathered to date, which has helped ATSB investigators develop a detailed picture of this tragic accident’s sequence of events,” said ATSB Chief Commissioner Greg Hood.

Tanker 134 at Medford, Oregon
Tanker 134 (B134) at Medford, Oregon July 27, 2019. Photo by Tim Crippin.

It was very windy on January 23, with a forecast for the possibility of mountain waves. Before the incident a birddog, similar to a lead plane, and  Bomber 137 (B137), formerly Tanker 138, a Boeing 737 that Coulson sold to New South Wales, was tasked to drop on a fire in the Adaminaby area. Based on the weather the birddog pilot declined the assignment. After B137 made a drop on the fire, the crew reported having experienced uncommanded aircraft rolls up to 45° angle of bank (due to wind) and a windshear warning from the aircraft on‑board systems.

After completing the drop, the B137 crew sent a text message to the birddog pilot indicating that the conditions were “horrible down there. Don’t send anybody and we’re not going back.” They also reported to the Cooma FCC that the conditions were unsuitable for firebombing operations. During B137’s return flight to Richmond, the Richmond air base manager requested that they reload the aircraft in Canberra and return to Adaminaby. The Pilot in Command (PIC) replied that they would not be returning to Adaminaby due to the weather conditions.

B134 was dispatched to the fire at Adaminaby. While they were in route, the PIC of B137 called to inform them of the actual conditions, and that B137 would not be returning to Adaminaby.

After arriving at Adaminaby the PIC of B134 contacted the air operations officer at the Cooma FCC by radio and advised them that it was too smoky and windy to complete a retardant drop at that location. The Cooma air operations officer then provided the crew with the location of the Good Good Fire, about 58 km to the east of Adaminaby, with the objective of conducting structure and property protection near Peak View. Again, there was no birddog operating with the air tanker.

B134 flight path air tanker crash
Flight path overview (in white), including the times and locations of where the crew of B134 was in communication with others. From the report.

Analysis of a witness video confirmed that the aircraft initially established a positive rate of climb and was banking to the left following the retardant drop, the report details. Continue reading “Report released for fatal crash of C-130 air tanker in Australia”

Colorado hopes to increase size of aerial firefighting fleet during the pandemic

The DFPC is requesting three additional air tankers and one helicopter

CR34 Fire in southeast Colorado
The CR34 Fire in southeast Colorado 10 miles south of Springfield, February 13, 2019. Baca County Sheriff’s Office photo.

(This article first appeared at FireAviation.com)

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) wishes to obtain additional aircraft for their firefighting fleet during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a letter to Governor Jared Polis and members of the General Assembly, the Director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, Mike Morgan, will be requesting $7.7 million to add three air tankers, a helicopter, and a fixed wing aircraft in order to provide aggressive initial attack and to supplement the limited number of ground resources available during the pandemic.

Currently the state owns two Multi-Mission Aircraft used for mapping reconnaissance. On contract they have two Exclusive Use (EU) Helicopters each with 12-person DFPC Helitack Crews, two EU Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATS), and three Call-When-Needed (CWN) SEAT contracts.

If approved by the Governor and the Assembly the additional aircraft, all on EU contracts, would include one large air tanker on a 120-day contract, two single engine air tankers (SEATs) on 150-day contracts, a Type 2 helicopter on a 120-day contract, and an Air Attack fixed-wing aircraft on a 180-day contract for aerial supervision and airspace coordination.

The 747 SuperTanker is on a CWN contract with Colorado but it needs to take and pass another grid test before it can be used on a fire in the United States. It has been certified by the Interagency Airtanker Board on an interim basis, but that has expired. After having made modifications to the retardant delivery system, the operator, Global SuperTanker, believes the aircraft will pass the test, but scheduling it during the pandemic has proved to be difficult.

Colorado also has a CWN contract for a P-3 large air tanker operated by Airstrike.

The state’s Wildfire Emergency Response Fund (WERF), part of an effort to keep fires small, provides funding or reimbursement for the first air tanker flight or the first hour of a firefighting helicopter, and/or two days of a wildfire hand crew at the request any county sheriff, municipal fire department, or fire protection district.

The firefighting goals of the DFPC include:

  • Generating an incident assessment for every fire within 60 minutes of request or detection.
  • Delivering the appropriate aviation suppression resources to every fire within 60 minutes of the request.
  • Providing on-scene technical assistance and support within 90 minutes of request for support from a local agency.

Colorado has beefed up their ground resources this year, adding three additional 10-person modules (hand crews) which raises the total number of modules to four, with one in each quadrant of the state.

Colorado wildfires 2002 - 2019
Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control

The DFPC continues to partner with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to increase the availability of bulldozers, road graders, and other heavy equipment for wildfire suppression. To date, 75 CDOT equipment operators have received basic training.

Like other firefighting organizations, Colorado realizes that the pandemic is likely to reduce the availability and productivity of firefighters. Staffing of Incident Management Teams (IMTs) may be constrained by a reduced number of personnel who are available to leave their home jurisdictions. The DFPC is developing cadre lists of State and local personnel who can form multiple Type 3 IMTs for suppressing wildfires.

The cost per gallon of dropping retardant

We calculated the cost per gallon of delivering retardant on a wildfire for several different models of air tankers

MD-87 drops on the Round Peak Fire
An MD-87 drops on the Round Peak Fire east of Springville, Utah. Photo by Jocelyn Marie Cooley.

This article first appeared on Fire Aviation

On February 12 I wrote a lengthy article about exclusive use Next Generation 3.0 air tanker contracts, the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study, air tanker availability since 2000, and the contracts that were awarded recently for Call When Needed (CWN) large and very large air tankers.

The next day I added some calculated data to that article about the cost per delivered gallon from the CWN air tankers. In an effort to ensure this additional information does not get lost, I am including it again here.

Keep in mind the costs only apply to CWN air tankers which can be more than 50 percent higher than an exclusive use air tanker that is guaranteed several months of work. The initial dollar figures supplied by the Forest Service are based on the contracts that were awarded in December, 2019.

The U.S. Forest Service refused to give us the actual daily and hourly costs that the government agreed to when issuing the new CWN contracts to the six companies, but did supply the chart below with estimates based on the contract costs. The data assume the tankers were activated 36 days a year, for 4 years, and flew 100  hours each year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold up to 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were, 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS CWN contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and including fuel but not the costs of retardant, are:

Retardant Cost Delivered Gallon CWN

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant carried varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. The cost of retardant would add several dollars per gallon.

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

Three fatalities after air tanker crash in Australia

New South Wales January 23

Tanker 134
Tanker 134 as it started a new contract with CAL FIRE. Coulson photo, April 11, 2019.

This article first appeared on Fire Aviation.

Updated at 6:01 a.m. PST January 23, 2020 (US time)

A C-130Q air tanker (N134CG) crashed in southern New South Wales Thursday January 23 (Australia time). All three members of the crew perished.

Coulson Aviation released a statement saying their aircraft, Tanker 134, had departed from Richmond NSW on a firebombing mission and went down in the Snowy Monaro area. There were three fatalities.

(UPDATE: the three men have been identified)

Tanker 134 had been working on a contract in Australia since August, 2019.

Tanker 134 (N134CG)
The last flight path of Tanker 134 (N134CG) recorded by FlightAware, January 23, 2020 U.S. local time.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau will be investigating the incident which they said occurred at Peak View near Cooma, NSW. The agency is expected to release a preliminary report within 30 days.

map crash tanker 134
The marker shows the location of Tanker 134 that was last recorded on FlightAware.
location Tanker 134 crash
This Google Earth 3-D map shows the general location of Tanker 134 last recorded by FlightAware. The map is looking north.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said Coulson has grounded its entire fleet of air tankers out of respect for those who died. “Our hearts are with all those that are suffering in what is the loss of three remarkable, well-respected crew that have invested so many decades of their life into firefighting,” he said.

Cameron Price of 7NEWS Sydney reported on the incident:

Wreckage of missing RFS C-130 located by search crews. Reports only tail section intact. Aircraft has broken up on impact. Crews reporting difficult terrain and “terrible visibility”.

The Premier of New South Wales said out of respect for the crew flags would fly at half mast in the state, and:

Heartbreaking & devastating news that three US residents who were crew members operating a LAT in the Snowy Mountains region have lost their lives. Our thoughts & heartfelt condolences are with their families & the tight knit firefighting community.

The U.S. Ambassador to Australia, Arthur B. Culvahuse Jr. said:

I am deeply saddened by the tragic news we received today. The brave Americans who died near Snowy Monaro died helping Australia in its time of need. The families and friends of those who we have lost are in our thoughts and prayers. Thank you Australia for your sympathy and solidarity.

From the Canadian Interagency Fire Centre:

@CIFFC and its member agencies are deeply saddened by this tragic event. We send our condolences to our firefighting colleagues at #CoulsonAviation & @NSWRFS

Earlier the New South Wales Rural Fire Service reported that contact had been lost with a large air tanker that was working in the southern part of the state in the Snowy Monaro area.

@aus_forum
Posted at 7:22 PST January 22, 2019 (US time)

Our sincere condolences go out to the families, friends, and coworkers of the crew.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.