Updated: April 26, 2013 at 12:00 am
Forty-eight percent of the time that firefighters asked for air tanker support in their fight against wildfires across the United States last year, they didn’t come.
Those numbers included requests for the 11 large aerial tankers — and this year there are only eight of those.
As temperatures rise and the threat of wildfires nears, firefighters and experts are concerned that the nation’s stock of large firefighting tankers is insufficient to keep smaller fires from burgeoning into megafires.
The U.S. Forest Service has three fewer large tankers on contract than it did at the beginning of the 2012 wildfire season, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
And just like last year — when the fleet was a quarter of the size that it was a decade ago — the agency is poised to rely heavily on loaned planes and yet-to-be-awarded contracts.
The agency leans on its Defense Department counterparts and planes on loan from Canada and Alaska to drop retardant intended to slow advancing flames.
And tanker businesses are awaiting word on a contract to fund a fleet of newer, faster large air tankers — a plan that came undone last year amid a contract dispute.
In 2012, national fire dispatch centers received 914 requests from fire commanders for air tankers — basically, planes bigger than their single-engine counterparts, according to the 2012 annual report from the Boise fire center. Each time a request was logged — even if it was for more than one plane — dispatchers made a note.
Last year, dispatchers were able fill 346 of those requests with civilian tankers, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Another 63 requests were filled by military planes and 67 requests were cancelled, the report shows. That meant 438 requests — 48 percent — went unfilled, the report says.
The reasons requests went unfilled vary — planes were down for maintenance or fighting fire elsewhere, or crews were getting required rest, said Mike Ferris, spokesman for the Boise fire center.
But the availability — or lack thereof — of those tankers has concerned some Colorado firefighters.
“It would be nice to be able to sit here and tell you that we have that the availability 100 percent of the time,” said Paul Cooke, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “That’s just not the case.
“... it’s a catch as catch can kind of system here until we can mobilize enough assets.”
Waiting for the next generation
The current number of large air tankers isn’t representative of the force that Forest Service officials expect to field by this summer, said Scott Fisher, the aviation management specialist for the U.S. Forest Service.
By June, the agency expects to have 15 large air tankers — capable of carrying 1,800 to 3,000 gallons of retardant — on exclusive-use contracts.
In addition, the Forest Service expects to have contracts for three very large air tankers — capable of carrying more than 3,000 gallons of retardant, such as DC-10 aircraft.
They are part of an array of aerial resources that firefighters rely on each year. This year, that includes more than 100 helicopters under contract with the U.S. Forest Service, as well as a bevy of smaller, single-engine tankers overseen by other federal agencies.
This year, the Forest Service expects to bolster the current force of eight planes with seven aircraft commonly referred to as the “next generation” of tankers — a faster, turbine-powered fleet capable of dropping more gallons of retardant during every flight.
The Forest Service awarded those contracts last summer. But a contract dispute over maintenance issues and an appeal by a company’s whose contract was cancelled meant none were deployed over any fires — leading companies to re-submit proposals.
Fisher said the Forest Service does not expect the contracts to be delayed again.
“I’m not sure what other alternative we have,” Fisher said. “We go after the process to contract and it’s our expectation that those aircraft will come on.”
Firefighters and industry observers, however, have been more skeptical.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said he will “be on the doorstep of the Secretary of Agriculture” if the contracts aren’t let this year.
“I’m concerned but optimistic,” Udall said. “... I know they (contractors) have legitimate concerns about dollars and cents. I’m also concerned about lives and homes.”
A slow-evolving fire season
So far, this year’s early fire season has proven less chaotic than in 2012.
On Sunday, the Forest Service expects to activate its sixth large air tanker — a slower start compared to last year, Fisher said, and a pace more in line with historical averages.
The Forest Service typically activates its tanker fleet in a tiered system — often beginning with one or two in February, and adding an additional one or two every month after that, he said.
When massive fires do rage — a scenario that appears just as likely as last year despite the recent moisture — tankers will be expected to slow fires, not put them out.
Fire officials often lament the misconception that tankers carrying retardant actually stop wildfires. In reality, they offer little more than “speed bumps” to slow the fire’s progress, said Scott Campbell, assistant fire marshal for El Paso County.
“The aviation assets buy us a little bit of time,” Campbell said. “They can maybe get there faster or work on something that maybe we can’t get close to yet and cool it down.
“But we still have to get in there on the ground and take care of it there.”
Finding other options
The uncertainty over the U.S. Forest Service contracts has prompted some Colorado lawmakers to seek their own solution: A Colorado-owned tanker fleet.
Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, proposed creating a six-tanker fleet — three large planes and three single-engine planes — owned and operated exclusively by Colorado firefighters. The bill has passed the Senate, but doesn’t include any way to pay for the aircraft.
The program would cost $17.5 million in its first three years and $7 million for each additional year after that.
Defense Department and Forest Service officials also have sought to mobilize the Pentagon’s fleet of eight firefighting C-130 aircraft quicker — roughly doubling the number of retardant refilling stations across the western U.S, a number that now stands at 15, Fisher said.
The Forest Service spent about $9 million less on its own aerial fleet in 2012 than it did the year before, when the agency spent $56 million on fighting fires from above.
Much of that cost reduction came from the fact that the agency had fewer tankers at its disposal, said Jennifer Jones, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center.
But at the same time, the Forest Service reimbursed the Pentagon $12.4 million for its C-130 fleet — its second highest total since 2006.
The fleet was busy, dumping 2.5 million gallons of retardant in 2012 — the second most ever for the program.
There also have been discussions to clarify the regulations concerning calling those C-130s into the firefight before commercial assets have been exhausted in situations when lives are at stake. No decisions, however, have been made.
A year after those C-130s flew above the Waldo Canyon fire — Colorado’s most destructive blaze, causing more than $350 million in insurance claims — the lack of action over the nation’s large aerial resources have left some baffled.
“It’s a false economy to cut back on the number of firefighters and air tankers to think you can save money,” said Bill Gabbert, former executive director of the International Association of Wildland Fire, who now pens a blog titled Wildfire Today. “... when just the one huge fire, when it burns 100 or 200 thousand acres can cost tens of millions of dollars to put out, or even more.”
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