USA–– Rand Corp. study recommends use of Super Scoopers over retardant-dropping air tankers in wildfires. Forest Service chief disagrees.
The U.S. Forest Service is dismissing a study it commissioned that recommends a major overhaul in its approach to fighting wildfires, suggesting swapping out expensive retardant-dropping air tankers in favor of less costly water-scooping planes.
A Rand Corp. study examined the optimal combination of large planes and helicopters deployed to fires, providing an analysis of the effectiveness and efficiency of each type of aircraft. The Forest Service relies heavily on an aging fleet of WWII-era tankers to fight fires, which drop thousands of gallons of fire retardant that slows the spread of fires and allows crews on the ground to build containment lines.
The so-called Super Scoopers are large-bellied planes that swoop onto large bodies of water lakes or even the ocean and take in up to 1,600 gallons of water. Their utility in fires is two-pronged: The planes fly faster than helicopters and can make more round trips per day, and they are apt to be closer to a water source than tankers, which require an airport and established tanker base for replenishing.
The report said the virtue of scoopers “is that they can drop far more water per hour on most fires than air tankers can drop retardant. Our analysis of geographic information system data shows that most high-risk fires occur near water sources, precisely because most human settlement is near water.”
The federal agency has used the large water-scooping planes sparingly. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection uses a more modern scooper.
The chief of the Forest Service responded by dismissing much of the study. “I don’t agree with it, and I don’t find their information compelling,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. He said the figures researchers used as the basis for their calculations were not up to date, skewing the analysis.
“The price we’ve been quoted for water scoopers is higher than the number they used, and the cost for delivery of retardant is less,” Tidwell said.
Tidwell said fire tactics sometimes call for retardant drops rather than water especially in the critical early hours of a blaze. “Water is lighter than retardant, can be blown off target and can evaporate,” he said. “Retardant has a residual effect on the ground.”
Rand researchers noted that they lacked hard data regarding the usefulness of both water and retardant on fires.
The report emphasized the cost to taxpayers, making a clear case that water-scooping aircraft are significantly less expensive to operate than large helicopters. The report found that the annual cost of a Super Scooper is about $2.8 million and of a large helicopter about $7 million.
But that’s not the only way to measure cost efficiency, Tidwell said. “If it’s not effective, it’s not going to save us money it’s going to end up costing us more.”
Fire commanders prize water-dropping helicopters for their versatility and ability to operate in a variety of terrain. California fires, for example, tend to break out in canyons or other hard-to-reach places, accessible to low-flying helicopters but not to scoopers, which are not as maneuverable and drop their payload from a higher altitude.
Forest Service officials said Monday that federal fire managers have access to a dozen scoopers from Canada and two from Minnesota. The agency will lease two additional planes this week, and officials are seeking six more scoopers from the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The study comes as federal officials are scrambling to replace their fleet of large firefighting planes, which are increasingly showing their age under highly stressful conditions during fires. Seven crew members have died in crashes so far this season.
The Forest Service has placed seven new, retrofitted tanker planes under contract this year and are trying to acquire between 18 and 28 modern retardant-dropping planes.
That is precisely the approach the Rand report discourages.
“I still feel our strategy for large air tankers is sound,” Tidwell said.
A Super Scooper makes a drop over Porter Ranch in 2010. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)