Forest Service document reports 25% of hotshot crews can’t meet required standards

Recruiting, retention, and inept contracting is degrading the nation’s preparedness and ability to suppress wildfires

Mescal Fire, June 8, 2021
The San Carlos Type 2 hand crew and the Bear Jaw Type 2IA Crew teamed up on a large spot fire on the west flank of the Mescal Fire June 8, 2021. BLM photo by Mike McMillan.

A U.S. Forest Service document written June 22 said that of the approximately 110 Federal hotshot crews, 25 percent, or about 27 crews, are not able to meet the required standards. This is due to vacant positions and the agency’s difficulties in hiring and retention. Each crew should have 20 firefighters if all the positions can be filled with qualified personnel. So we’re talking about 550 firefighters.

This report comes from NBC Montana which obtained the document. Below is an excerpt from their article.

The June 22 document, written before the Forest Service started awarding some private Type 2 contracts, reads, “We anticipate exhausting our current crew availability within a week or so, based on our Interagency Predictive Services outlook and current trends. Compounding our lack of crews this year is hiring and retention issues within our own ranks, which the Secretary of Agriculture discussed during his town hall with the Chief of USDA Forest Service recently.”

It goes on to say, “We already do not have as many of our own crews available as we normally do. Our Interagency Hotshot Crew ranks have been hit the hardest with roughly 25% of them not meeting Type 1 status, or even not being able to field a 20-person crew. Additionally, our Interagency partners and cooperators are having crew staffing issues as well, diminishing the total number of crews overall.”

The article also has quotes from Riva Duncan, a retired staff officer for the Forest Service who is now the Executive Secretary for the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a nonprofit group advocating for proper classification, pay, and benefits. For example:

“We know that a lot of engines and crews were not able to fill all of their vacant positions,” Duncan said. “And so that has affected staffing levels. It’s affected hotshot crews being able to get type one Hotshot status. There are several engines that are only staffed five days effective instead of seven days effective.”

In addition to the inability of the Forest Service to fill all of their firefighter positions, another problem related to contracting with private companies to supply 20-person Type 2 hand crews is developing. Until this year, the Forest Service relied on the Oregon Department of Forestry to administer those contracts, which expired in April. But this year the Forest Service took over the process and awarded  contracts for only 258 out of about 350 potential crews.

Multiple companies that provide crews filed protests with the Government Accountability Office which would prevent any crews from working that received a new contract. But the Forest Service has filed an override with the GAO this week, which will allow them to go forward with awarding contracts.

Another contracting problems is with Type 2IA hand crews which are more capable and highly trained than Type 2 crews and can make initial attacks on new fires. Those contracts for 41 crews expired in December but has been extended to June 30 — Wednesday of next week. If the new contract is not awarded it will take 840 firefighters off line.

Our opinion

With the June 22 Forest Service document reporting, “anticipate exhausting our current crew availability within a week or so,” this contracting issue for hand crews appears to have reached a crisis stage.

Last year there was a severe shortage of firefighting resources. This year could be even worse, with nearly 9,000 firefighters committed today and the National Preparedness level at 4, one below the highest level — and it is still June, just six days into Summer. The peak of the wildland fire season is in July and August. The Forest Service needs to recognize that filling firefighter positions and contracting for hand crews is a critical necessity, and should not be subject to the typical inept processes of their contracting section.

If the Type 2IA hand crew contract is awarded in the next couple of days before the current contract expires, judging from what happened with the Type 2 contract, it will be protested with the Government Accountability Office. That would prevent any crews that did receive a new contract from working unless the Forest Service files another override with the GAO.

If you talk with any private company that has to work with the Forest Service under a contract, they will tell you that process is horrendous and is an ongoing scandal. It takes months and sometimes more than a year to award a contract after it has been announced. At Fire Aviation we follow closely the contracting process for aerial firefighting resources. Check out this search for articles at the site using the search terms “protest contract”.

Too often, as we see in the recent Type 2 hand crews contract debacle, the Forest Service procrastinates and drags their feet, not awarding contracts until just days before the last one expires. Then most of them are protested, which shuts down work under the new contract for months.

I don’t know why the Forest Service’s contracting process is incompetent, so I can’t say specifically how it can be fixed. But an investigation is needed, or a consultant could be hired so that the entire contracting section can be torn down and rebuilt, or at least their processes, work flow, goal setting, and standard operating procedures could be evaluated and improved.

Someone must be held accountable for this very important system that has degraded our preparedness and ability to suppress wildfires.

Forest Service has 18 large air tankers this year under contract

The schedule calls for most of them to begin in April and May

large air tanker Requests filled, UTF, and Canceled

The U.S. Forest Service has 18 large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year.

In 2020 the agency started out with 13 on contract in April and May but by June 24 had added 11 on modified call when needed (CWN) contracts for a total of 24. Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems C-130 aircraft from the National Guard and Air Force Reserve were deployed from July 23 until October 4 in 2020, usually two at a time.

Requests for USFS LATs UTF or Canceled

This year the 18 EU large air tankers are being supplied by five vendors:

  • Six, Aero Flite (RJ85)
  • Four, Erickson Aero Tanker (MD87)
  • Four, Neptune Aviation (BAe-146)
  • Two, Coulson Aviation (C-130)
  • Two, 10 Tanker (DC-10)

The dates they will first be on duty could change if the Forest Service decides they need to come on early, but the scheduled 160-day “mandatory availability periods” (MAP) which are different for every air tanker specify that two will begin in March (11th and 17th) and most of the rest will start in April and May. The MAPs end August 18 through November 20 for the 18 aircraft, but those dates could be extended if necessary.

DC-10 air tanker Central Fire
Air Tanker 914, a DC-10, drops retardant on the Central Fire in Arizona, June 20, 2020. Photo by JDH Images.

The 2020 fire season started with much less activity than average (see the chart below) but when hundreds of fires began burning millions of acres in the West in mid-August, the number of large air tankers on contract was less than was actually needed. September 19 saw 32,727 fire personnel deployed, the highest number since August 24, 2015 when 32,300 were assigned. Many fires during that six-week period had numerous requests for ground and aviation firefighting resources that were unable to be filled when the fires were discovered. This allowed some of the blazes to grow virtually unchecked for days — or longer. In 2020, 34.3 percent of the requests for large air tankers were either cancelled or unable to be filled.

Since 2001 the four years with the highest number of total fire detections in Washington, Oregon, and California have all occurred since 2015, according to satellite data processed by the New York Times in September of last year.

Fire detections West Coast Oregon Washington California New York Times
Published September 24, 2020 by the New York Times.
Number of USFS Large Air Tankers on Exclusive Use contracts.
Size of USFS Large Air Tanker Fleet

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.

Australia beefs up their air tanker fleet

New South Wales has been experiencing hot, dry weather for several days, resulting in numerous bushfires that have burned more than 100 homes

Above: DC-10 Tanker 911 on the Robbers Fire in California July 15, 2012. Photo by David Wilson.

This article first appeared at

Due to an unusually high level of bushfire activity Australia has contracted for two additional air tankers to assist firefighters on the ground. Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), said the aircraft were added using the NAFC’s system of Enhanced Call When Needed (EWCN) contracts.

On November 12, U.S. time, Tanker 911, a DC-10, was loading spare parts onto the aircraft and is expected to be fire-ready in Richmond, New South Wales on November 16. It is supplied by Agair/10 Tanker. The DC-10 is considered a Very Large Air Tanker and can carry up to 9,400 gallons (35,582 liters).

The other EWCN air tanker added to the fleet is a Coulson C-130Q with an enter on duty date of November 29, also at Richmond. It usually carries around 3,500 gallons (13,248 liters).

Australia's large and very large air tanker fleet
Australia’s fleet of large and very large air tankers, updated November 13, 2019. The dates are DD/MM. Information provided by NAFC.

There are also changes on the rotor wing side. One of the most significant additions is a ECWN contract for a Blackhawk with long line bucket based at Toowoomba in Queensland.  The helicopter is suppled through Kestrel Aviation (who are partnered with BHI2/Brainerd).

Recent additions bring the total number of firebombing aircraft in Australia to 63 fixed wing and 45 rotor wing. There are an additional 51 aircraft used for other fire-related missions.

H. R. 3781 if passed will increase fire suppression contractor costs

Large commercial vehicles supporting wildfire suppression could see a significant increase in insurance premiums

(Above: Firefighters line up at the catering contractor’s truck for breakfast at the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colorado July 1, 2012. USFS photo by Kari Greer.)

By Bob Stanton

If H.R. 3781 passes, it will increase the required minimum insurance coverage required for commercial motor vehicles (CMV) over 26,001 lbs GVWR from the current $750,000 to nearly $5 million. The bill titled Improving National Safety by Updating the Required Amount Insurance Needed per Event ( INSURANCE) Act of 2019, would apply to CMVs used in interstate commerce and index the new $5 million minimum requirement to inflation.

The bill was introduced and is sponsored by representatives with close ties to the Trucking Litigation Group within the American Association for Justice, a trial lawyers lobbying group. The bill is viewed as only benefiting trial lawyers. From a 2013 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration study of financial responsibility requirements for commercial motor vehicles, less than 1% of CMV accidents settle for more than the current $750,000 requirement.

Currently liability coverage for larger commercial vehicles is at times hard to place and costs have been rising, in part due to “nuclear” multimillion dollar verdicts against trucking companies in tragic accidents. Exact estimates of how much premiums for CMV insurance would rise if the $5 million minimum coverage limit is imposed vary; 300-400 % premium increases is not an unrealistic estimate.

Many contract suppression resources operate CMVs that would be subject to this new costly insurance requirement. Many engines, water tenders, dozer low boys, mobile shower, catering, aviation fueling, mobile retardant bases, and air resource support vehicles are CMVs subject to FMCSA requirements.

Both direct suppression resources and support-contracted resources are an integral part of cost effective wildland and prescribed fire management programs by many agencies.

If you have concerns, contact the office of your member of Congress.

Bob Stanton is a retired prescribed fire and engine contractor from Illinois who now works in the trucking industry.

Contract awarded to install retardant tanks in Forest Service HC-130H air tankers

This article first appeared on Fire Aviation.

HC-130H paint design
This is the US Forest Service approved paint design that will be used on the seven HC-130H air tankers acquired from the Coast Guard.

After a solicitation process that dragged on for almost two years, the U.S. Air Force has awarded the contract to build and install retardant delivery systems for up to seven of the seven HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service. 

The Coulson Group announced today that they received the contract. In one sense this is not unexpected because the company has installed and successfully operated two similar systems in C-130s — Tanker 131 and Tanker 132. In another sense, it is a surprise after the Government Accountability Office denied the company’s protest of the terms of the request for proposals in August of 2015.

C-130 retardant tank unload
Coulson’s retardant tank being removed or installed in one of their air tankers, T-131, in 2013. Coulson photo.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to work with the United States Air Force to provide them with state of the art retardant aerial delivery systems (RADS) for their fleet of C-130s,” says Wayne Coulson, CEO and President of Coulson Aviation.

The 3,800-gallon retardant system will be gravity-based with retardant tanks that can be quickly removed, making it possible for the air tankers to also haul cargo or passengers.

One of the seven HC-130H aircraft began working out of McClellan Air Field near Sacramento last summer. Since it did not have a permanent retardant tank it borrowed one of the Forest Service’s eight Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that can be inserted into the cargo hold of a military C-130 to provide a surge capacity of air tankers during a time of heavy wildfire activity. The MAFFS pump the 3,000 gallons of retardant out of a pipe through the door using compressed air, rather than letting it drop out of the belly with the assistance of gravity as is done with conventional air tankers.

The Air Force is responsible for the retrofitting and performing the heavy maintenance that must be completed before the seven HC-130Hs are finally turned over to the USFS over the next three years. This contract is for the installation of one trial “kit”, one verification kit, and three production kits. There is an option for the installation of two additional production kits.

Coulson Aviation has 25 years of experience in aerial fire suppression and they operate both Type 1 helicopters and large fixed wing air tankers. Coulson is one of the few companies to hold multi-country aerial firefighting contracts, including Canada, the United States, and Australia.