Actions Needed to Alleviate the Shortage of Air Tankers To Fight Forest Fires
By Mingyang Sun, student, Fordham University School of Law
While the Little Bear Fire in New Mexico is under control, other wildfires are still rampant. In Waldo Canyon, Colorado, the wildfire has destroyed 347 structures and a death was reported on June 29. As wildfires continue to burn, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is in a shortage of important aerial firefighting assets. It may have to face increasing workload with fewer air tankers as the fire season goes on.
In contrast to its proved effectiveness, the size of the USFS’ large air tanker fleet has been shrinking. In 2006, the fleet consisted of 44 contracted air tankers. The number dropped to 11 at the beginning of this fire season, and became even smaller after a fatal crash on June 3 in Utah and an emergency landing on the same day in Nevada, leaving 9 currently available.
This is only half or one third of the quantity needed based on the modernization strategy initiated by the USFS in February, which called for a future fleet of 18 to 28 large air tankers. Besides its shrinking scale, the condition of the remaining fleet is also worrying: 8 of the aircraft remaining are very old P-2Vs built over 50 years ago. Any problem that results in a grounding is likely to further deplete the USFS’ aerial capability of fighting large-scale wildfires. Moreover, during current operations, hazards relating to the old age are posing additional risk to the crews as they fly through the smoky canyons over and over again.
The issue of modernizing and enlarging the air tanker fleet is not fresh to the USFS. As early as in 2002, Federal Aerial Firefighting: Assessing Safety and Effectiveness, a blue-ribbon panel report in response to 2002 fire season’s fatal aircraft accidents, mentioned the necessity for the USFS to improve its fleet. The report explicitly identified the safety risk resulting from the planes’ structural failure due to their old age and proposed the development of “a fleet of purpose-built, turbine-engine, fixed-wing air tankers based on well-defined requirements.”
Three years later, the 2005 report Wildland Management Application Study recommended a fleet of 34 to 41 air tankers.
Then in 2009, NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy reiterated the 2005 report, proposing the acquisition of C-130Js to replace the old aircraft under the “fewer but newer” policy, which aimed to successfully control wildfires by prompt initial attacks.
Ironically, in the following years, there were no newer planes, but fewer. Little has been done until recently. On June 13, President Obama signed Bill S. 3261 to expedite the contracting process for new large air tankers. On the same day, Tom Tidwell, Chief of the USFS, announced that contracts had been awarded for seven next generation air tankers. These new large air tankers are able to operate with much higher efficiency and reliability.
However, a brand new, high-end fleet in the future will not fix problems at hand. The USFS has been mobilizing aerial assets from resources besides its own to maintain a minimum scale of air tanker fleet. For current firefighting operations, along with the remaining 9 P-2Vs under exclusive use contract with the USFS, 5 CV-580 Convairs from the state of Alaska and Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, two S-2Ts from the state of California, 8 C-130s of Air Force and the National Guard have been activated.
Last summer, the agency was confident with its ability to mobilize enough aerial assets for wildfire suppression. But the situation may have changed this fire season. On July 1, a mobilized C-130 of the National Guard crashed in South Dakota while battling the White Draw Fire. The accident resulted in 4 deaths and the temporary grounding of all 8 C-130s. Although five planes resumed flight two days later, this incident was a heavy blow to the already stretched air tanker fleet.
A long-term, large air tanker strategy, which has been called for since 2002, but has not yet been implemented, may serve as a solution to the air tanker problem. But there is also something that the USFS should and is able to do at once.
There are Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) sitting unused since the USFS is not interested in awarding exclusive use contracts, which are needed to cover the cost for their operation. These giants are 2 DC-10s and 1 Boeing 747. Each of them can carry 5 to 10 times more retardant than the P-2Vs currently being used. Only one of the DC-10 has been activated by the USFS. Last month, during 33 sorties on seven fires in Arizona and New Mexico, the only activated DC-10 dropped about 373,600 gallons of retardant. By contrast, the smaller capacity P-2Vs will take 192 round trips for the same task. However, USFS has been reluctant to use these VLATs under more than “Call When Needed” contracts. Operators of the VLATs alleged that such contracts will barely make ends meet barely make ends meet.
Technically, USFS’ attitude towards VLATs may come from the lack of dropping precision, since VLATs have to maintain a higher altitude in operation than regular air tankers like the P-2Vs. There are also complaints from Evergreen Aviation, one of the VLAT operators, blaming that USFS’ preference to small businesses keeps them from getting a contract.
All the military C-130s activated are equipped with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS). It is a pressurized retardant tank with tubes extended out of the cargo bay doors with a capacity of about 3,000 gallons. Theoretically, almost all C-130s can be converted into air tankers by installing the MAFFS. These versatile C-130s have been considered as perfect models for air tankers. For decades, they have been used to drop parachutes and armored vehicles at low altitude and low speed, a situation similar to aerial firefighting missions. Actually, the 2002 blue-ribbon panel report was considering the practicability of using C-130s as future air tankers. Why is the USFS not mobilizing more C-130s?
Regarding the use of military C-130s as supplemental air tankers, there is an agreement between the USFS and the Department of Defense that allows USFS to mobilize military aircrafts if all commercial air tankers are fully committed or not readily available. Apparently, the agreement serves as a constraint to prevent government resources from competing with private businesses. However, the real reason for not mobilizing more C-130 Hercules is that the USFS only had 8 MAFFS available for this fire season, and one of them was lost in the crash on July 1. The developer of current MAFFS was Aero Union, a private aircraft operation & maintenance company, which used to be an air tanker contractor with the USFS. The contract for 6 P-3A air tankers was canceled in 2011 for Aero Union’s failure to pass required safety inspections. Later Aero Union went bankrupt. Accordingly, it is not likely for the USFS to obtain more MAFFSes to gear up more military C-130s in a short time.
“We think we have adequate resources today,” said the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who supervises the USFS on an interview by 9news.com on July 2. He also explained the declination of getting more VLATs on board as “every wildfire is unique” and “the situation is complicated.”
Now the situation is really complicated: there are wildfires across the West and the aerial firefighting fleet is old and shrinking. Moreover, the ability of mobilizing more military C-130s is limited. Under current climate conditions, the possibility of more wildfires of larger scale remains high.
In March this year, the USFS issued another solicitation for a new study on air tankers. This will be the sixth in the last 17 years while the new air tankers are still far on the way.
Considering the shortage of reliable air tankers and the danger faced by crewmembers and local residents, the USFS needs to get more appropriate aerial firefighting assets involved, if not the VLATs. There are still private operators of air tankers available for contracts. More importantly, a key part of a well-planned and coordinated future strategy must be the acquisition and implementation of new air tankers without delay.