USA — The US Forest Service and the Department of Interior have repeatedly failed to collect information identifying the number and type of firefighting aircraft they need, and have not documented the performance of the fleets they currently have in use, according to a new federal audit.
Since 1995, the Forest Service and Interior have cumulatively produced nine major studies and strategy documents related to their firefighting aviation needs, but the agencies efforts to identify the number and type of firefighting aircraft needed have been hampered by limited information and collaboration, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a highly critical audit report.
In particular, GAO said, these efforts did not include information on the performance and effectiveness of firefighting aircraft and involved limited collaboration between agencies and with stakeholders in the fire aviation community.
While there have been numerous calls for the US Forest Service and Interior to collect aircraft performance information, neither agency did so until 2012, when the Forest Service began a data collection effort.
However, the Forest Service has collected limited data on large air tankers and no other aircraft, and Interior has not initiated a data collection effort, GAO said. In addition, although firefighting aircraft are often shared by federal agencies and can be deployed to support firefighting operations on federal and nonfederal lands, the agencies have not consistently collaborated with one another and other stakeholders to identify the firefighting aircraft they need.
The Forest Service and the Department of the Interiors land management bureaus have a responsibility to respond to wild fires on federal lands, and they make use of aircraft in their fire suppression efforts. During the past 50 years, aircraft have played an increasingly critical role in fighting wild fires by dropping retardant to slow fire growth or water to suppress fires. They also are used to conduct aerial surveillance and deliver supplies.
With fire seasons becoming longer and more severe as witnessed this summer in the West, the need for firefighting aircraft will continue to grow.
The federal government contracts mostly with private vendors that own and operate the aircraft. These planes include large air tankers able to carry at least 1,800 gallons of fire retardant materials.
The GAO said the number of large air tankers available under federal contract decreased substantially in the last decade, from 44 in 2002, to eight in early 2013, due to aging planes and several fatal crashes.
Safety concerns led the government in 2011 to terminate contracts for eight large air tankers. Three additional crashes in 2012, two of which resulted in fatalities, further increased concerns regarding the federal governments ability to provide continued aerial support for wild land firefighting activities.
In the near term, GAO said the Forest Service plans to rely on contracted “legacy” air tankers as well as supplemental aircraft available through contracts and agreements with other governments and the military. However, it said concerns exist regarding the availability, capability and costs of these resources.
In the medium term, the Forest Service has awarded contracts for “next-generation” large air tankers, but it is uncertain when all of these aircraft will be available, because bid protests have delayed contract issuance, and most of the aircraft receiving awards have not been fully tested and approved.
In Feb. 2012, the Forest Service issued its final Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy.
GAO said that as the federal government draws up its plans and seeks to justify its decisions and the costs, it must collect additional information to better document its needs and to provide data on current aircraft performance and effectiveness.
GAO said this analysis will require greater collaboration across agencies and with stakeholders to enhance agency estimates of their firefighting aircraft needs and better position the agencies to develop realistic strategic plans. The Departments of Agriculture and Interior generally agreed with GAOs findings and recommendations.