In failing to analyze the performance and effectiveness of its firefighting aircraft, the U.S. Forest Service could not build a solid case for expanding its drastically depleted and aging fleet, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday.
The Forest Service has expressed concerns about the capability and costs of the aircraft in its fleet - which includes helicopters and small and large air tankers - and has declared its intention to acquire more airplanes. Since 2002, the fleet has dropped from 44 large air tankers to eight this year, as many of the older aircraft were retired or broke down.
In the meantime, the Forest Service has a few strategies for dealing with the shortage - in the short term, it relies on Canadian and military aircraft and has contracted for some next-generation air tankers for the next few years. But long-term plans for its own improved fleet have failed to get off the ground, according to the report.
Although the Forest Service hopes to buy aircraft, it has been "unable to justify its previous plans for purchasing large air tankers to the Office of Management and Budget," primarily because it has not provided statistics tracking the best use of aircraft in firefighting - basic proof of what works and what doesn't.
Instead, the role of aircraft in firefighting remains largely an anecdotal plan, according to the report. Aircraft have been used to drop countless gallons of retardant along fire lines, and decisions of when and how to use them are made based upon firefighter observation and experience. While that might be effective, the GAO report "found that no accurate information on the effectiveness of aerial fire suppression exists and noted that the factors contributing to the success of wildfire suppression efforts are poorly understood."
There are a few obstacles to gathering data - some based on American flight regulations and others on firefighter safety. In Canada, pilots are required to complete a daily log of their firefighting activities, which have been used to study the tactics behind retardant dumps; the U.S. does not require daily reports from its pilots.
Firefighters also have resisted collecting more data on their drops, claiming that they had safety concerns about complicating their workload on a fire.
There is also the perception that information will be used against firefighters by the Forest Service, according to the report. It is difficult to collect data in a world where hard-earned experience and fire smarts are valued "over data and scientific analysis," the report said.
Ultimately, the report recommended that the agency start rigorously tracking how it uses the fleet - combining data from other agencies, which it has neglected to do - and really focus on what the fleet needs are.
"The agencies generally agreed with the GAO's findings and recommendations," the report said.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who serves on the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in a news release said he urged the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to quickly adopt the GAO's recommendations as they update their air tanker fleets.
The GAO report was requested by Udall along with Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
"This report highlights several areas where the federal government can do a better job to prepare for modern megafires and protect communities from the growing threat of wildfire," Udall said. "I urge the military to quickly transfer its excess aircraft so they can be used as air tankers and to carry cargo and personnel to fire sites. This cost-neutral step would boost our wildfire response."