About half of requests for air tankers could not be filled last year

There is an article over at Fire Aviation about the number of Unable to Fill (UTF) requests for air tankers last year. Here is an excerpt:

New data that the National Interagency Fire Center released about the 2012 wildfire season reveals that almost half, or 48 percent, of the requests for large air tankers could not be filled. 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.

Unfilled air tanker orders increased in 2011

The number of unfilled orders for large air tankers increased to 29.8 percent in 2011, while the number of air tankers that were available on contract fell. In 2010 there were 19 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts and the unable to fill (UTF) rate was 15 percent.

In 2011 the number of air tankers decreased to 11 in July after the U.S. Forest Service cancelled their contract with Aero Union saying certain aircraft inspections were not completed. Aero Union, now in the process of selling their assets, is appealing the USFS allegations. Neptune brought on one additional air tanker, a leased BAe-146, in November on an “interim” approval basis.

The higher UTF rate is at least partially due to a busy fire season in the southwest, compared to the slower years of 2009 and 2010. The number of acres burned in the lower 49 states in 2011, which excludes Alaska, was 8.4 million, exceeding the average of 5.1 million between 2000 and 2011.

Acres burned wildfire US 2000-2011
Acres burned in wildfires in lower 49 states, US 2000-2011. Data from NIFC.

While the data about UTF rates is difficult to interpret, perhaps we can be safe in saying that if more than 4,000,000 acres burn in the lower 49 states, having 21 or fewer large air tankers tends to result in 25-30% of the air tanker orders being UTF, which is about triple the UTF rate when fewer acres burn. In 2000 with 40 air tankers on contract, 6,600,000 acres burned, and the UTF rate was 7%.

You have to wonder how often incident commanders do not place orders for needed air tankers if they already know that none are available.

UPDATE at 9:00 p.m. MT, January 25, 2012:

We received an email from Scott and we asked him if we could post what he wrote. Here it is:

You wrote “You have to wonder how often incident commanders do not place orders for needed air tankers if they already know that none are available.” This statement is hauntingly similiar to those found in John McLean’s “Fire on the Mountain”, where the author reported airtankers were not ordered during early phase of South Canyon Fire because of assumption “none were available”. The Lesson Learned was don’t assume. Place the orders, justify the need, and push for priority. Still may not get AT, but you tried. Obviously, the reduction in total number AT is ominous for the future. Thanks for keeping it on the front burner.


Unable to fill orders for air tankers compared to the number on contract and wildfire activity

I love charts and graphs, and one of our readers has put together a very interesting one. They found data for the number of large air tankers on contract each year and the number of orders for them that were UTF (unable to be filled).

Air tankers UTF chart
Air tankers, UTF data, 2000-2010. Click to see a larger version. Data from NIFC.

The person that sent us the data and asked to remain anonymous, sent us this message that along with the data:


Great website, I really enjoy reading it. Here is a little flame for the airtanker debate. This is a continuation of my comments posted to the September 26, 2011 page.

I was curious if the number of large air tanker orders that are filled each year have changed with the decreasing fleet size. I came across these data from http://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_statistics.html. I compiled these in the attached spreadsheet for years 2000-2010.

The percentage of orders that are “unable to fill” have increased as the fleet size has reduced. However, in recent years (2009-2010) with a fleet size of ~ 20 planes, the percent of orders unable to fill were 11.5% on average vs 7% for years (2000-2001) when the fleet size was double at ~ 40 planes. I think this shows that the air tanker fleet size is still meeting demand reasonably well even though it has fewer large tankers available. I’ll be curious to see what this looks like for 2011 and especially 2012 if the fleet continues to reduce.

Of course the number of UTFs for air tankers is affected not only by the number of air tankers on contract, but also by the need for them, or, how busy the fire season is. Here is a chart that I put together using data at NIFC showing the number of acres burned in the lower 49 states (which does not include Alaska) 2000 through 2010. I excluded Alaska because in four of the years during this period they burned between 2,000,000 and 6,000,000 acres, which skews the data. Some of their huge fires see little if any suppression activity, so for this purpose, they are largely irrelevant. (Sorry Alaska)

Acres burned in wildfires, lower 49 states 2000-2010
Acres burned in wildfires, lower 49 states 2000-2010. Data from NIFC, compiled by Bill Gabbert

Interpreting this data is very difficult. I would exclude data for 2002 through 2004, because I believe, and someone correct me if I’m wrong, but due to the two fatal mid-air wing failures in 2002, the number of available large air tankers changed dramatically in the middle of the 2002 and 2004 fire seasons as categories of air tankers were grounded, temporarily or permanently.

If you compare UTFs before and after 2002-2004 with similar number of acres burned outside Alaska, sometimes there is a correlation and other times there is none. For example, a similar number of acres burned in 2000 and 2008, and 2008 had more than triple the number of UTFs. But the years 2001 and 2009 with similar acres burned also had similar numbers of UTFs.

Perhaps we can be safe in saying, based on this data, that if more than 4,000,000 acres burn in the lower 49 states as in 2005-2008, having 21 or fewer large air tankers tends to result in 25-30% of the air tanker orders being UTF, which is about triple the UTF rate when fewer acres burn. In 2000 with 40 air tankers on contract, 6,600,000 acres burned, and the UTF rate was 7%.


Wildfire news, September 26, 2011

The U. S. Forest Service announced on August 15 that they intended to award a non-competitive multi-million dollar contract to the Rand Corporation to continue studying the air tanker issue. Rand had a previous contract with the USFS to provide advice about the long term management of the air tanker and helicopter fleet. The report from that study was due in January, 2011, but rumor has it that their product was virtually worthless and they were sent back to the drawing board. Now the USFS wants to throw good money after bad, giving Rand what appears to be an additional $7 million to milk the public coffers even more. This issue has been studied to death already. The USFS staff in Washington simply needs to review the previous four studies and make a damn decision about how to reconstitute the large air tanker fleet which has declined through mismanagement from 44 to 11. This is turning into a very bad joke on the American taxpayers. Someone needs to put some firefighters in charge a making the decision, like in this classic video.

UPDATE at 4:14 p.m. Sept. 26, 2011; we just found at another web page a “modification/amendment” to the above announcement:

Added: Sep 01, 2011 5:01 pm. Due to the responses received expressing interest in this procurement, the program has decided to withdraw its sole source determination. A competitive acquisition will be conducted after the end of the fiscal year.

This is a good news/bad news announcement. Good, in that there is a chance that someone who actually has knowledge about aerial firefighting might do the study. Bad, in that… ARE YOU KIDDING ME? STILL ANOTHER STUDY! The previous five are not enough? How many do we need? 10? 15?


Dollar Lake fire, 9-2-2011
Dollar Lake fire, 9-2-2011. Photo by S. Swetland

The Dollar Lake fire burning on the slopes of Mt. Hood in Oregon received some rain and is being turned over to a Type 3 incident management team. They are calling it 90% contained after burning 6,304 acres.


Texas wildfires became political fodder on Sunday when President Obama, speaking at a fund-raiser in Woodside, California, said:

I mean, has anybody been watching the debates lately? You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change.

Mark Miner, a spokesperson for Governor Rick Perry of Texas, shot back saying it was “outrageous” that the president…

…would use the burning of 1,500 homes, the worst fires in state history as a political attack.


And in more wildfire-related political news, if Congress can’t get their s**t together and pass a bill funding disaster relief, thousands of victims of the Texas fires may not get the help they need to rebuild home and businesses. Meanwhile, more than 3,000 Texans have registered for about $5.8 million in federal government wildfire-related aid from FEMA, including Housing Assistance, Other Needs Assistance, and Disaster Unemployment Assistance.


Canoe training for firefighters on the Pagami Creek fire
Canoe training for firefighters on the Pagami Creek fire – Photo by Luke Macho

Some firefighting resources are being released from the Pagami Creek fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeast Minnesota. The fire has not increased in size in a week or so and the incident management team is calling it 93,459 acres and 53% contained.  (Definitions of “contain” and “control”). Yesterday, air resources dropped 267,000 gallons of water and delivered 11,000 pounds of cargo.


On Sunday the Norton Point fire southeast of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming grew by 3,000 to 3,500 acres and has burned a total of 20,500 acres. It is staffed with two people.