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.

(The two charts below were updated February 2, 2019)

Wildfire Acres Burned 1985-2018

In the late 1980s the average size of a wildfire in the U.S. was 30 acres. That has increased every decade since, bringing the average in the 2010s up to 101 acres.

1985-2018 wildfires average size decade

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.

NPS official talks about the wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg

Above: Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky points toward the twin peaks (at upper left) where the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned for five days before it spread into Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

When a group of wildfire professionals visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park on June 7, Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky walked them through the steps he took in evaluating and managing the fire that after six days burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee killing 14 people, forcing 14,000 to evacuate, destroying or damaging 2,500 structures, and blackening 17,000 acres. In addition to coordinating the wildland fire management activities at that park, Mr. Salansky does the same thing for 20 other National Park Service sites in the Southeast United States

Late in the afternoon on November 23, 2016 firefighters in the Park were responding to a report of a vehicle fire when they spotted a vegetation fire near the top of a steep hill called Chimney Tops. A fire in the same area a week earlier was given the name “Chimney Tops”, so this new fire became “Chimney Tops 2”.

Mr. Salansky and one firefighter hiked up a trail to the fire area but when they got close to the blaze in a very steep area the other firefighter decided that it was unsafe for her to continue so she remained at that location while Mr. Salansky continued. Working his way along a portion of the fire edge he found that the vegetation was very dense making travel through the steep, rocky terrain difficult.

investigator national park service
An investigator from the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch looks for evidence at Chimney Tops. NPS photo.

He tried scraping some leaves to begin a fire line, but told the group last week standing in a pull-out on the highway looking up at Chimney Tops, “Well, maybe I can go in on the north side. So I walked that ridge and the smoke laid over about chest high. I’d get in about 20 feet and the wind would let up and the smoke would come up. There was a drop off on both sides. I did that a couple of times before I figured out I shouldn’t even be here. What am I doing here? So I thought I’m done, there’s nothing I can do with it. It’s dark. It’s not safe. So I bailed off and tied in with April who was my safety, since she was smart enough not to go where I went. So we hiked back down. We’ve got a squad coming in the next day, Thanksgiving, welcome to Thanksgiving day.”

The next day, November 24 (day #2), with about six other firefighters he hiked up near the fire that occurred a week before where there is a sign reading, “From this area past it is closed.” Mr. Salansky said. “There’s been one fatality and multiple injuries that cost like $20,000 apiece. So all the folks read that and they’re like, ‘It says it’s closed and dangerous and you want us to go in and fight fire.’ ”

Continue reading “NPS official talks about the wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg”

Deputy IC on Wolverine Fire describes the competition for firefighting resources nationally

Five new lightning-caused fires started Friday that surrounding Chelan, Washington, threatened homes in the city, then some of them joined forces and crossed the Columbia River. Our main article about the Chelan area fires is HERE (which is updated daily), but you may want to hear a portion of the back story of how wildfire organizations came up with a plan to deal with the quickly developing emergency during a time when the competition, nationally, for firefighters has become overwhelming.

In this video Rob Allen, the Deputy Incident Commander for the Wolverine Fire which is 30 air miles up Lake Chelan from the City by the same name, describes how his fire sent firefighting resources from their winding-down incident to assist with the initial attack of the five new fires near the city.

In the last one-third of the interview, Mr. Allen explains the nationwide shortage of firefighters and how the competition for resources is affecting firefighting in the Washington area and the rest of the West. As we reported earlier on Saturday, even though 554 20-person hand crews are currently working on wildfires in the western United States, there are outstanding orders for 160 more crews that are unable to be filled. Other important nationally-managed resources are already fully committed to ongoing fires and are completely unavailable for new fires, including transportable shower units and caterers that can set up in a remote area and begin feeding hundreds of hungry firefighters a few hours after they arrive in a dusty field near a fire.

Yarnell Hill Fire report released

Granite Mountain Hotshots

(Originally published at 11:19 MDT, September 28, 2013; updated at 6 p.m. September 28, 2013. Observations after reading the report are at the bottom of this article.)

The Arizona State Forestry Division has released the Serious Accident Investigation report of the Yarnell Hill Fire, which on June 30, 2013, killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. It was produced by a very large cast of characters, 18 core Team Members, 17 Support Team Members, and 19 Subject Matter Experts, for a total of 54 people.

The report found:

The judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable. Firefighters performed within their scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol.

Yarnell Hill fire
Air Attack’s photo of the Yarnell Hill fire at 7:24 p.m. June 29, 2013

A news conference about the report was live-streamed by at least two Phoenix area television stations. In the question and answer period several national news organizations as well as local media asked questions of the five-person panel which consisted of the Arizona State Forester, two people from the investigation team, and two officers from the Prescott Fire Department.

You can download the report (6Mb file) and some “Frequently Asked Questions” about the investigation.

Below is a 21-minute video released by the investigation team today, which they described as a “A brief overview of the Yarnell Hill Fire Investigation report.” Much of it comes word for word from the report but it makes effective use of Google Earth to provide an overview of the geography of the fire.

Granite Mountain Hotshot Christopher MacKenzie shot the two video clips below shortly after 4:00 p.m. on June 30, 2013. These are the last images of the hotshots before they died. The video was unexpectedly made available today for the first time by the Prescott Daily Courier, which has an article about how the video and other photos of the fire were found.

Our observations after reading the report and viewing the press conference and the question and answer session.

The official report commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division, a case of them investigating themselves, did not break much new ground. There was little of a negative nature written about the crew or their employer, the Prescott Fire Department, which was barely mentioned. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were fully qualified, staffed, and trained and they were on day 13 of a permitted 14 days in a row of fighting fire. And, there was “no indication of negligence, recklessness actions, or violations of policy or protocol”.

Why did the Granite Mountain 19 leave the “black”?

The investigators emphasized that they were unable to answer one of the most-asked questions about the fatalities — why the crew left the safety of the already burned area, the black, to attempt to walk 1.6 miles mostly through unburned brush to another safety zone, the Boulder Springs Ranch. They came to within 0.38 miles of their destination when they encountered one of the heads of the fire that had wrapped around the ridge to their left in the box canyon and was headed toward them, cutting off their path probably much to their surprise. Click the map below to see a larger version of the wind at the deployment site.

Wind at the Yarnell Hill Fire

No one knew where the crew was in relation to the fire

There was confusion about the location of the crew. Other firefighters thought they had either remained safely in the black where they had been for a while, or they had headed north to another safety zone. But instead, they traveled south. When they reported that they were entrapped and were deploying their fire shelters, no one knew where they were. Finally they told Air Attack they were on the “south side”, but even though a DC-10 air tanker was orbiting and ready to drop on them, airborne personnel could not find them, either due to heavy smoke or because they were looking in the wrong place. But under the extreme wind and fire conditions, it is unlikely that air support would have helped the firefighters very much.

Improving situational awareness

This is another fire, like the Esperanza Fire, where if the fire overhead, such as a Division Supervisor, Operations Section Chief, or Safety Officer, had known the location of the personnel on the fire in relation to the real-time spread of the fire, it could have saved lives — 24 on these two fires alone.

It is irresponsible for the wildland fire agencies to continue to do nothing to improve the situational awareness of firefighters, which has proved fatal to too many of them.

We have written about this several times before. Many local fire departments, EMS divisions, and police units have the ability to send location data to dispatchers. If the analog or digital ground-based radio systems being used today can’t handle this task in remote areas, then use a satellite-based system. The U.S. Forest Service asked for proposals to purchase thousands of little location devices last year, and adding high tech video systems to air attack ships could help. We have also written about a device we called a Firefighter’s Emergency Situational Awareness Device, a FESAD.

One of the recommendations in the report was to “review current technology that could increase resource tracking, communications, real time weather, etc.” The Q&A panel today said, in response to a question, that the surviving family members of the 19 Hotshots strongly suggested while being briefed this morning that tracking systems for firefighters be utilized.

Very Large Air Tanker not ordered because of “steep terrain”

The information that the state of Arizona released on July 16 about the resources deployed on the fire said a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) was in Albuquerque and available on June 29, but was not ordered due to Air Attack’s concern about its effectiveness in steep terrain and inability to deliver retardant before cut-off time. The way this was addressed in today’s report was “ICT4 declines the VLAT offer at 1750 [June 29] based on fire conditions.” There was nothing about “steep terrain”, which didn’t exist on the fire to the extent that it would severely limit the effectiveness of a DC-10 VLAT. In fact, the next day, June 30, they used the hell out of both DC-10s, dropping over 88,000 gallons in 8 flights. A recommendation in today’s report was to “…develop a brief technical tip for fire supervisors/agency administrators on the effective use of VLATs.”

Air tanker drops on Yarnell Hill Fire
Air tanker drops on Yarnell Hill Fire, June 29 and 30, 2013.

The DC-10s may have been effective on June 29 when the fire was still small, but by the time they both arrived on June 30, the day of the entrapment, the wind event was making it difficult for anything dropped from the air to slow down the fire — too much heat, and too much wind blowing the retardant away before it hit the target.

Aerial Supervision Module taking on too many roles?

During the time of the entrapment the roles of Air Attack and Lead Plane were filled by a single aircraft called an Aerial Supervision Module (ASM), coordinating all of the aerial firefighting, directing air traffic, preventing aircraft from bumping into each other, developing tactics, AND serving as Lead Plane, physically leading the air tankers into their targets about 200 feet above the ground. The Lead Plane duties limited their ability to perform full Air Attack responsibilities over the fire at the same time. The report said,  “ASM was too busy handling multiple duties to communicate with the crew just prior to the deployment”.

One of the recommendations in the report is to request the National Wildfire Coordinating Group to develop guidance to identify at what point is it necessary to separate the ASM and Air Attack roles to carry out required responsibilities for each platform.

No overwhelming force

The ordering and use of ground and aerial firefighting resources was less than aggressive on June 29, the day before the tragedy when the fire was still small. The only air tankers used that day were two single engine air tankers, and for only part of the day, dropping a total of 7,626 gallons. After being released, they were requested again by Air Attack, but dispatch only allowed one to respond to the fire, wanting to keep one in reserve in case there were other fires. General Norman Schwarzkopf’s philosophy when confronting the enemy was to use “overwhelming force”. This strategy also is effective when confronting a wildfire. Overwhelming force for a short amount of time can prevent megafires burning for weeks, consuming many acres, dollars, and sometimes homes and lives.

Report issued about resources deployed on Yarnell Hill Fire

The Arizona State Forestry Division has issued a report that summarizes information about some of the major events and the firefighting resources that were deployed for the Yarnell Hill Fire on which 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew were killed.

A very quick summary:  according to the report, 24 hours after the Yarnell Hill Fire was reported, it had burned only 6 acres — 23 hours after that 19 firefighters were dead. It seems too unlikely to believe.

Below are some highlights of the report, but you can read the entire report HERE.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The fire, caused by lightning, was reported at 5:40 p.m. The Yarnell Volunteer Fire Department responded, but they were not sure they could access it. The fire was not staffed at night for safety and lack of access reasons. The last reported size that day was one acre. Air Attack flew over the fire but there was no mention of any helicopters or air tankers being used.  There were multiple lightning-caused fires in that part of the state.

A spot weather forecast from the National Weather Service predicted for Saturday, hot (102-104 degrees), dry (10-11% relative humidity), winds light (W-SW 6-10 gusts to 14 m.p.h.), very little relative humidity recovery at night, and the possibility of high based showers or thunderstorms with a slight chance of moisture. If thunderstorms developed, the fire area could experience gusty winds.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Six firefighters were flown in to the fire and began work. They estimated the fire had burned two to four acres.
Continue reading “Report issued about resources deployed on Yarnell Hill Fire”

Report: six air tankers requested before Yarnell Hill Fire entrapment, but they were not available

(UPDATE at 10:20 a.m. MDT, July 16, 2013)

The Arizona State Forestry Division has issued a report that summarizes information about some of the major events and the firefighting resources that were deployed for the Yarnell Hill Fire. This new document corrects some of the information reported by the Associated Press below.


(UPDATE at 10:15 a.m. MDT, July 13, 2013)

We checked with Rick Hatton, CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the company that operates the two DC-10 air tankers, about the use of their aircraft on the Yarnell Hill Fire. Mr. Hatton said each of their two DC-10s, which carry 11,600 gallons, made five drops on the fire. Throughout the day on Sunday June 30, the day of the tragedy, they made a total of eight drops, and then made two more on July 1.


(Originally published at 8:20 p.m. July 12, 2013)

The Associated Press is reporting that a request for six “heavy” air tankers was placed about 50 minutes before the Granite Mountain Hotshots became entrapped and deployed their fire shelters on the Yarnell Hill Fire. However the request was never filled, and was classified as Unable to Fill, or UTF. There were only 12 heavy air tankers on duty June 30 in the lower 48 states and none were available to respond to the fatal fire near southwest of Prescott, Arizona.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots lost 19 of their 20 crewpersons that day when a passing thunderstorm caused the wind to change direction by 180 degrees and increase in speed, gusting to over 40 mph. In winds that strong it is unlikely that any aircraft could operate safely 200 feet above the ground or effectively drop a liquid that would accurately hit the intended target.

The last retardant drops before the fatal entrapment were made at 12:30 and 1 p.m. by P2V air tankers which carry a maximum of 2,082 gallons. After that the air tankers went back to another fire they had been working in northern Arizona. According to the AP, earlier the two DC-10 very large air tankers had been requested which drop 11,600 gallons each, but they were not available. The AP also said, “Only a spotter plane was in the air when the Prescott, Ariz.-based Granite Mountain Hotshots died. The state’s fleet of small single-engine retardant-dropping planes was grounded in Prescott because of the weather, and no helicopters or heavy tankers were available.”


In 2002 there were 44 large or heavy air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Today there are 9. The day the 19 Hotshots died, four military MAFFS air tankers had been activated days earllier, but of those potential 13 air tankers, some of them would have been on their day off. And some, or all of those on duty, would have been actively working other fires. There were 50 uncontained large fires in the United States that day. If they all needed air tankers, which is not likely, each of the 12 that were on duty (according to the AP) would have to be shared by 4 large fires.

In 2012 about half the requests for air tankers could not be filled according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. Of the 914 requests, 438 were rejected as “unable to fill” (UTF), meaning no air tankers were available to respond to the fire; 67 were cancelled for various reasons.

Requests for large air tankers