How Wildfires Are Polluting Rivers and Threatening Water Supplies

Little Bear Fire
Road 532 on the Little Bear Fire in New Mexico, June 13, 2012. Photo by Kari Greer.

A study conducted at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies looked at the increasing effects that wildfires are having on water supplies. It is titled, How Wildfires Are Polluting Rivers and Threatening Water Supplies. Below is an excerpt.

As hotter and dryer conditions spawn an increasing number of wildfires in North America and around the world, one of the overlooked impacts of these worsening conflagrations is on aquatic environments and drinking water supplies. Just as wildfires can have a regenerative effect on woodlands, so, too, can fires provide some benefits to streams and rivers in burned areas. But scientists are warning that intense and repeated fires can damage the ecology of waterways by exposing them to the sun’s heat, exacerbating flooding and erosion along denuded hillsides, and releasing toxins such as mercury that are often liberated from soil and tree trunks.

The effect of major wildfires on drinking water supplies can also be severe, as evidenced by fires that burned upstream of places such as Fort McMurray in Canada in 2016; Denver and Fort Collins, Colorado in 2002 and 2012; and Canberra, Australia in 2003. Water treatment plants in those places were overwhelmed by sedimentation, dissolved organic carbon, and chemicals that were released by fire.

With fires burning bigger, hotter, and more frequently, the threats to water supplies and aquatic systems are bound to escalate, according to Deborah Martin, a Colorado-based U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist. She points out that an increasing number of regional, national, and global water assessments are now including wildfire in evaluating the risks to drinking water.

Study looks at costs if Utah took over federal lands in the state

An 18-month study by three universities concluded that if Utah took over most of the federal lands in the state they could anticipate revenues of $331.7 million annually while incurring costs of $280 million. Most of the income would be generated by the sale of oil, gas, and coal, while the cost of managing wildfire is estimated at $86.6 million.

The study was undertaken because Utah H.B. 148 seeks the transfer of title to 31.2 million acres of land currently managed by the federal government to the state of Utah. This accounts for more than 60 percent of the state’s land area, or five times the amount of land the state currently owns and manages. Most of the federal land in the state would be transferred under the proposal, except for national parks and designated wilderness areas. The graphic below shows the extent of the lands to be transferred.

Federal lands in Utah transfer to state

Below is an excerpt from the portion of the 784-page study that covered wildfire management:


“Wildfire management (WFM) is a significant cost of land management in Utah. The three agencies with primary responsibility in managing WFM in Utah are the BLM, Forest Service and FFSL. From 2003 to 2012, the combined spending by these agencies for WFM averaged $85.6 million annually (adjusted to 2013 dollars). Of this total, suppression costs averaged $30.5 million and non-suppression costs averaged $50.2 million. Table 3.26 shows the average 10-year costs for each agency.

The variability in WFM costs by agency shown in Table 3.26 is more a reflection of aviation capability than it is of efficiency. FFSL has no aviation capability and relies on federal land managers for aviation support essential to its fire suppression efforts. In general, the BLM provides small engine aviation capability while the Forest Service bears the cost for large tanker capabili-ties. These costs are not insignificant, which explains the high suppression costs reported for the Forest Service.

utah wildfire management costs

Suppression is not the largest component of WFM, but it is the most volatile and most difficult to anticipate. The majority of wildfires in Utah are ignited from natural causes. Drought conditions, combined with insect infestations and climate change contribute to not just fire ignition, but fire spread, severity, duration, and ultimately cost. Most of these conditions are outside the control of human intervention.

Although WFM costs in other states are not readily available, wildfire trends for the western states show that the wildfire situation in Utah is comparatively mild. From 2003 to 2012, Utah ranked seventh of 11 western states in number of wildfires and eighth in terms of acres burned.

We expect the 10-year average cost of $86.6 million to manage wildfire in Utah is representative of the costs going forward. Over time, this amount could decrease if the state took a less aggressive approach to suppression and increased investments in fire preparedness and mitigation (reducing hazardous fuels). However, growing fire risks from the bark beetle epidemic, trends towards a drier climate, and development in the wildland-urban interface may increase the costs of fire suppression in excess of current levels.”

Retired aviation professionals to conduct the 6th air tanker study

A crew of retired and current aviation professionals has been assembled to conduct the sixth in an unending series of air tanker and helicopter studies. We wrote about this latest study on June 7 after it was awarded by the U.S. Forest Service to AVID LLC, a company in Virginia. While I could not find any mention of air tankers or wildfire on AVID’s web site except in mentioning one possible function of an unmanned aerial vehicle, the effect of that apparent lack of experience may be minimized by their shrewd hiring of a staff of experts for this $380,000 contract.

Tanker 45 on the Whoopup Fire
Tanker 45 dropping in the smoky Ferguson Canyon on the Whoopup Fire July 18, 2011, protecting structures. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Dennis Hulbert, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service after serving as the Aviation Officer for the California Region, told Wildfire Today that he is a part of an assembled a group of professionals that will conduct the study with AVID. The team includes a retired National Assistant Director (Aviation), a Fire Planner/Forest Fire Management Officer/Incident Commander, several retired NASA employees, and some “Industry Professionals PHD- types”. In addition, AVID has some unique aircraft synthesis and analytical tools that can be used to assist these folks.

The AVID/Hulbert group will be guided by an in-house collection of federal employees who are subject matter specialists.

Mr. Hulbert believes that his group needs to define performance measures for firefighting aircraft that would be acceptable to the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, both of which have been critical of the USFS’s earlier air tanker proposals for procuring expensive Lockheed C-130J aircraft costing $80-90 million each. Tom Harbour, National Director for Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service, and Mark Rey, former Undersecretary of Agriculture (a position that oversees the USFS) who is now a lobbyist for Lockheed, have both recommended the purchase of C-130Js, but Mr. Harbour may be moving away from that position.

In addition to defining air tanker performance measures, the group should also define them for the U.S. Forest Service, such as an implementation schedule, with dates and names of responsible officials, for moving forward. Accountability can be an effective tool.

The Forest Service should have made decisions about the long-term composition of the fire aviation fleet 10 or 20 years ago. But since they continued to kick the can down the road year after year, and crash after fatal crash, this approach, wielding the expertise of actual wildfire aviation professionals, might be what it will take to move the process forward. Aviation professionals were used in the first four of the earlier studies (and there may have been some on the secret RAND study), but little followup occurred.

US Forest Service awards contract for a sixth air tanker study

Tanker 45, P2V
Tanker 45, a P2V, preparing to drop on the Whoopup fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The U.S. Forest Service has awarded a contract for another air tanker study, the sixth air tanker study in the last 17 years. It was given Friday June 1 to AVID LLC, a company in Virginia, which will receive $380,000 from the taxpayers, about half of what RAND received for their secret study, described by the USFS, “The data, analysis, and conclusion in this report are not accurate or complete.” This additional air tanker study should be finished in November. We will be curious to see if the USFS keeps this one secret also.

In scanning AVID’s web site, we can find no mention of wildfire, dispatching, aerial firefighting tactics, or air tankers. Some of the projects they have been involved with include software to determine the best route for an aircraft to reduce noise on takeoff, a small hovering unmanned aerial vehicle, and aerospace engineering.

The primary objective of this additional study is to “identify the appropriate number and types of aviation resources necessary to effectively meet future fire management needs”. In describing the contract, the USFS wrote:

The aerial firefighting mission is extremely complex in terms of aircraft use, aircraft characteristics, bases, contracts, costs, dispatching, mission objectives, tactics, strategy and communications.

It baffles me that a company with no apparent experience in the above, can provide a product that will be worth $380,000 of taxpayers’ money. What it will likely accomplish for the USFS is another six-month delay before they actually have to make a serious, detailed decision about rebuilding the air tanker fleet which, through neglect, has atrophied, from 44 in 2002 to the 9 we have today.

This reduction in the air tanker fleet has made fast, effective initial attack with ground AND air resources a quaint idea in our memory. If fires are not caught when they are small, some of them become large, and a few grow into mega-fires, consuming hundreds of thousands of acres and tens of millions of our dollars.

The U.S. taxpayers can only hope that this sixth air tanker study finally gives the USFS Fire and Aviation Management folks the answer they have been wanting, so we can cease this ridiculous analysis paralysis.

We wrote more about this sixth air tanker study in March.

The release of the RAND air tanker report is delayed

analysis paralysisThe air tanker report that the U.S. Forest Service commissioned but refuses to release even after a Freedom of Information Act Request, was not released in May by the RAND Corporation as promised. RAND told Wildfire Today in March that they had no problem releasing the report to the public even though the USFS said  “…the report is proprietary and confidential RAND business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4″. The USFS refusal letter went on to say: “The data, analysis, and conclusion in this report are not accurate or complete.” The USFS said they wanted “to protect against public confusion that might result from premature disclosure.”

Lisa Sodders of RAND told Wildfire Today on Monday that the report is still undergoing peer review “both internally and externally”, and explained that some of the reviews are taking longer than anticipated. RAND expects to release the report “in the coming weeks”, Ms. Sodders said.

The external reviews are probably the ones that are holding up the process, I’m thinking.

The USFS Forest Service paid RAND $840,000 for the study. This was the fifth study on air tankers since 1996. A sixth one is underway now, commissioned, again, by the U.S. Forest Service, but paid for, again, by the U.S. taxpayers.

More information about:

RAND to release air tanker study next month

Wildfire Today has learned that the RAND Corporation intends to release the air tanker study they performed for the U.S. Forest Service. The USFS has refused to release the $840,000 study 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.” The USFS letter also said they wanted “to protect against public confusion that might result from premature disclosure.”

The RAND Corporation has a different view, and told us that they have no problem releasing the report after they complete a quality assurance review in late May. They would have released it sooner, but there was uncertainty as to whether the USFS would ask them for additional analysis.

This was the fifth study on air tankers since 1996. A sixth one will begin in a few weeks.

Here is the timeline since October, 2009 for the air tanker Analysis Paralysis:

  • October, 2009:The USFS awards contract for air tanker study to the RAND Corporation.
  • August, 2010: RAND completes the study (according to the RAND Corporation). USFS decides they need additional analyses “in order to add details to RAND’s analytic model that were not originally requested”, (according to RAND)
  • May, 2011: RAND completed the additional analyses and briefed the results to USFS officials. Afterwards the USFS said even more analysis is needed in order to to re-examine the modeling assumptions RAND and the Forest Service had previously agreed to make.
  • August, 2011: The USFS announced that they intended to award a second contract, a non-competitive contract, to the Rand Corporation for an additional analysis of the air tanker issue.
  • August, 2011; two weeks after the previous announcement, the USFS canceled the solicitation, “due to the responses received expressing interest in this procurement”.
  • February, 2012: USFS advised RAND that no additional analysis would be requested.
  • March, 2012; USFS posts a solicitation for an analysis, titled “Firefighting Aircraft Study”. Responses to the solicitation due by April 20, 2012. After the contract is awarded, the report will be due near the end of 2012.
  • Late May, 2012: projected date for RAND to complete a quality assurance review of the final report in order to proceed with publication and the release of the document.

Below is RAND’s view of the history of the report, which they provided to us a few days ago:


“March 29, 2012

Comment on U.S. Forest Service study

In October 2009, the RAND Corporation competed for and was awarded a U.S. Forest Service contract to determine the number and mix of large aircraft the service requires to support U.S. wildland fire suppression. RAND completed the work in August 2010. The Forest Service and RAND agreed at that time that additional analyses were warranted in order to add details to RAND’s analytic model that were not originally requested.

RAND completed these additional analyses and briefed the results to Forest Service officials in May 2011. Afterwards, the Forest Service suggested that further analyses might be requested – not because RAND had failed to complete the planned analyses correctly, but because of a desire to re-examine the modeling assumptions RAND and the Forest Service had previously agreed to make. RAND and the Forest Service discussed the possibility of such analysis, but in February 2012 RAND was advised by the Forest Service that no additional analyses would be requested. At that time, RAND initiated a quality assurance review of the proposed final report in order to proceed with publication. We expect to release that publication by the end of May 2012.

Contrary to suggestions that may have appeared in online or other reporting, RAND does not consider its reports or briefings on this work to be proprietary or business-sensitive information. RAND distributes and disseminates its reports following completion of analysis and a thorough quality assurance review. Dissemination of the Forest Service report in question was delayed because of uncertainty as to whether the scope of the work would be expanded for additional analyses.

Andrew Morral,

Director of the RAND Homeland Security and Defense Center

The RAND Corporation”