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.

Fire districts in Colorado hope to forestall drastic budget cuts

At least 50 fire districts support ballot measures in November 6 election to stabilize tax receipts

Horse Park Fire
The Horse Park Fire, May 27 in southwest Colorado. Screenshot from a Hotchkiss Fire District video.

In  Colorado the effects of multiple constitutional amendments have combined, resulting in unintended consequences that have repeatedly reduced tax receipts for fire districts. Automatic changes in the tax rates will continue unless voters, county by county, approve ballot measures on November 6.

Below is an excerpt from The Journal:

Under the Gallagher [Constitutional] Amendment, 45 percent of the total amount of state property tax collected must come from residential property, and 55 percent of the property tax collected must come from commercial property.

The amendment mandates that the assessment rate for commercial property, which is responsible for 55 percent of the total state property tax burden, be fixed at 29 percent. The residential rate, on the other hand, is annually adjusted to hold the 45/55 split constant.

Because of skyrocketing home values on the Front Range, the residential tax rate was dropped statewide to stay within Gallagher’s ratio requirements. In Montezuma County, the residential tax rate recently dropped from 7.9 percent to 7.2 percent and is expected to drop further to 6 percent in 2019.

As home values continue to rise, the tax rates on residences automatically decrease, resulting in shrinking budgets for fire districts.

Another Constitutional amendment, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, mandates that the property tax rate can’t change without voter approval.

On next week’s ballot is a third amendment, Amendment 73, a very complex tax measure. If it passes, according to The Business Times, it  “will fund schools by funneling property tax revenues away from fire departments and other special districts’ budgets to give it to schools.”

What 50 fire districts in 20 counties in Colorado are hoping is that in next week’s election voters in each county will approve ballot measures that will stabilize fire protection funding. With the previous tax receipt reductions, and more expected in the next few years, many fire districts are in dire financial straits and worry that they will have to lay off firefighters and close fire stations.

From the Summit Daily: “Our budgets have been dropping for a long time,” said Jeff Berino, fire chief at Summit Fire & EMS. “Every two years we’ve been seeing less income. We’ve absorbed the hits over the years, but it’s time to draw a line in the sand.”

And it will only get worse unless voters can be convinced that this complex situation needs to be fixed and approve the ballot initiatives on Tuesday.

The video below, posted by the Rocky Mountain Fire District, explains the interaction between two Colorado constitutional amendments (Gallagher and Taxpayers Bill of Rights) and the effect on fire departments in the state.

This is a  complex situation that can’t be easily and quickly explained. Some voters might be scared into not approving the ballot measures, hearing that they have something to do with taxes. Firefighters have their work cut out for them to communicate the message that the ongoing automatic reductions in tax revenue for the fire districts need to be reversed and stabilized. If that does not happen, they may be forced into implementing drastic cuts in fire and emergency services.

All three of these Colorado constitutional amendments, crafted with insufficient thought, work together in ways that are unintended, with very severe and negative effects on fire districts.

Washington DNR requests a record $55 million budget

The agency wants to convert 30 seasonal engine Captain jobs into year-round permanent positions

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz unveiled on October 10 the largest budget request of its kind in state history: a $55 million Department of Natural Resources proposal for fighting wildfires and maintaining healthier forests in Washington.

The 2019-21 budget package, which already has bipartisan support from members of the Legislature’s Wildfire Caucus, would transform DNR’s firefighting strategy and reduce that hazards that unhealthy forests pose to Washington communities.

This year, DNR responded to about 1,700 wildfires – second only to the number of wildfire responses in 2009. Smoke from this year’s fires at times gave Washington the worst air quality in the world, and numerous fires forced families to evacuate their homes.

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz
Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz speaks about her budget request October 10, 2018 at the Department of Natural Resources helicopter maintenance hangar in Olympia, Washington.

“We need bold, forward-thinking investments to reduce wildfires. Inaction is not an option,” Franz said. “It’s time to come together to invest in strategies that keep wildfires small and our skies clear of smoke, and I look forward to working with the governor and the Legislature to ensure we have the resources we need to keep our communities healthy and safe.”

Wildfire fighting and prevention

The biennium budget request includes nearly $12 million to transform 30 seasonal engine Captain jobs into year-round permanent positions. This would help retain seasoned firefighters at DNR and provide a staff to carry out critical forest health treatments, such as prescribed burning, during the offseason. The vast majority of DNR’s firefighting force is seasonal (only 43 firefighters work full time), prompting many firefighters to take their skills elsewhere.

“I love serving my community as a wildland firefighter,” said Tommy Matsuda, a seasonal firefighter at DNR. “But the part-time nature of the job makes it hard to sign up year after year. I would gladly stay on full time performing forest health work in the offseason if I was able.”

The agency’s firefighters would also receive more training to deal with increasingly complex wildfire seasons under the commissioner’s budget plan, to the tune of $2.2 million in the 2019-21 biennium. They would receive two additional helicopters – increasing their helicopter fleet to nine and helping them respond more rapidly to fires.

Additionally, more than $4.8 million would grow the firefighting force supplied by Washington’s prison system – from 300 to 380 workers – allowing incarcerated people to learn firefighting and forestry skills while reducing the state’s firefighting costs. The budget also would provide $100,000 to improve emergency communications and $234,200 to help assess landslide risk in areas affected by wildfire.

These requests support the commissioner’s Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan to make the fundamental changes necessary to stop and prevent uncharacteristically large wildfires.

“As a fire chief and incident management team member in a community impacted by wildfire, I know we need more resources on the ground,” Spokane County Fire District 9 Chief Jack Cates said. “With more full-time firefighters and air resources, the Department of Natural Resources will be better able to assist us in protecting endangered communities like Spokane County.”

Franz made her announcement alongside state Reps. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, as well as Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation Chairman Rodney Cawston, Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Chief Dave LaFave, and Matsuda.

“The facts are simple: When fire is running across the landscape, it’s terrifying. It doesn’t matter if it’s 15,000. It doesn’t matter if it’s 80,000 acres. It’s terrifying,” said LaFave, a member of the the state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Council and the Washington Fire Chiefs Association. “We want to see these initiatives move forward. We want to see a different decision today, so there’s a different outcome tomorrow.”

Because people cause 90 percent of all wildfires, teaching the public about wildfire prevention is another key part of the commissioner’s budget.

It would invest nearly $2 million in the creation of seven public-outreach specialists scattered across the state, and it includes $4.2 million for DNR’s Landowner Assistance Program. This program helps private forestland owners reduce the wildfire threat on their lands.

Restoring resilient, healthy forests

To get at the core of the problem, Franz’s budget request includes more than $5.7 million to speed up forest health restoration by creating a division solely committed to forest health. The proposal also asks for $17.7 million in capital budget funds to treat more than 32,000 acres of state, federal and private forests in targeted, high-risk areas.

And more than $724,000 in the proposal would dedicate two employees to manage the federal contracts, finances, and grants necessary to carrying out restoration treatments on federal lands. DNR and the U.S. Forest Service work together through the Good Neighbor Authority agreement to work toward their forest health goals.

“Wildfire doesn’t respect property boundaries,” Cawston said. “By increasing resources for our state’s wildland firefighters, we decrease the risk that wildfires pose to tribal communities and private property owners. This is a win-win for Washington.”

Visualizing increasing costs of wildfires

Comprehensive fire funding fix could be passed this week

The new system is included in the proposed omnibus legislation

Above: Thomas Fire, Ventura, California, Los Padres National Forest, 2017. USFS photo.

(Originally published at 8:09 a.m. MDT March 22, 2018)

After years of dithering, Congress appears to be on track to finally significantly change the way wildfires are funded, no longer robbing dollars from fire prevention or totally unrelated accounts to pay for emergency fire suppression. One insider in Washington calls it the long-anticipated “comprehensive funding fix”.

The changes are part of the omnibus legislation that likely will be voted on on Friday. The bill also funds most of the government, which will have to shut down Saturday if it does not pass. Of course anything could happen between now and then, but this is the closest we have been to a meaningful solution.

If passed it would begin in fiscal year 2020 and run through 2027, improving the two aspects of fire funding that have created major problems:

  1. In years when fire suppression costs are very high, it would use a budget cap adjustment to fund a new account which will receive an extra $2.3 to $3.0 billion a year. The amount will increase by $100 million each year. This should reduce the need to rob money from unrelated accounts in bad fire seasons. Money from the account would only be used after funds from usual firefighting accounts are depleted.
  2. It will freeze the 10-year average computation of fire suppression costs at the 2015 level, $1.4 billion. This is even more important than the first change. Congress directs the Forest Service to fund the fire organization at the 10-year average of costs. That would be fine, except that the total budget for the FS remains the same year after year, while fire costs keep increasing. So even before the fire season starts, the agency has to take money from other accounts to give to fire management. And, this money is not later paid back, unlike the funds that are taken later in the year to pay for a bad fire season.

These TWO changes are why the insider calls this a “comprehensive funding fix”. Simply creating a new, unconnected account for emergency fire suppression would be only part of a solution.

But if the total budget for the Forest Service continues to be locked in at the same amount year after year, funding the fire organization at the 2015 10-year average is still going to be very difficult. The third part of the fire funding fix would be to stop cutting, in real dollars, the amount appropriated to the Forest Service.

Other provisions in the omnibus bill would increase the budget for the National Park Service by 8 percent and include $154 million to apply toward the $11.6 billion infrastructure repair backlog.

The legislation also reduces environmental analysis procedures on projects that treat hazardous fuels.

The press releases are flying as politicians praise, and in some cases, take partial credit for the changes in fire funding. The two Colorado Senators, Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, are in favor of the changes:

“The pressures that wildfires have brought to the West, as well as the challenges of climate change and development, the antiquated way we pay for firefighting needed dramatic change,” Sen. Bennet (D) said in a news release. “This bipartisan fix transforms and modernizes the Forest Service’s capacity to restore forest health and mitigate and fight wildfires.”

Sen. Gardner (R) also said the funding bill will go a long way to help federal agencies tasked with fighting fires.

“Year after year, much of the West is forced to deal with horrible wildfires that burn millions of acres, and funding that should be applied to fire prevention and mitigation projects is instead spent by the Forest Service fighting these fires. Our provision will ensure the Forest Service has the necessary funding for cleanup and prevention efforts that will help reduce the amount of catastrophic wildfires the Forest Service has to fight,” Gardner said.

The Senators in Montana, Oregon, and Idaho issued similar statements.

You can’t fight fires on the cheap

The federal government is reducing the numbers of large air tankers and helicopters on exclusive use contracts. Air tankers are being cut from 20 to 13, and Type 1 helicopters over the last year have been reduced from 34 to 28. Cutting back on these firefighting resources is not going to enhance our ability to suppress new fires before they become large, dangerous, and expensive.