USA — National wildfire officials are urgently trying to reinforce an undersized and aged fleet of retardant-dropping air tankers in the aftermath of June’s deadly Yarnell Hill Fire, but as they gird themselves for a potentially treacherous 2014 season, significant improvements may be more than a year away.
Tom Harbour, national director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, said drought conditions have dried up the West since last summer, when monsoon rains spawned a bumper crop of fire fuels.
“You bet we’re concerned and worried about what’s going to happen,” Harbour told The Arizona Republic. “This puts us in a precarious position as we head into this new season.”
Harbour noted that numerous unusual winter wildfires already have erupted and been doused in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest and in drought-ravaged Southern California. State officials said on April 2 that 179 wildland fires already had been reported this year in Arizona alone.
The significance: “We could be off to a very early start,” said Harbour.
The threat of an incendiary fire season from Oregon to Texas represents a logistical challenge and creates thepotential for resource shortages at the National Interagency Fire Center, or NIFC, in Boise, Idaho, which coordinates wildfire suppression nationwide.
Wildfires typically ignite in bunches, forcing incident commanders to vie for a limited supply of crews and equipment. That competition is especially fierce for big, retardant-dropping planes, considered crucial in the initial attack that prevents small blazes from becoming infernos, and also in defending communities threatened by monster fires.
“Everybody wants aircraft when we get busy,” Harbour said. “We use words like ‘juggling.’ “
The air-tanker shortage was noteworthy during the Yarnell Hill blaze, which killed 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Investigative records show fire managers repeatedly called for heavy bombers, only to get the response “UTF” “Unable to Fill.”
On June 30, seven hours before the hotshots were overcome by the fire, incident commanders ordered three heavy tankers through a system that provides aircraft across the Southwest. Two were approved, but almost immediately were diverted to another blaze near Kingman. Two more big tankers were requested, but only one was available. Finally, as the fire began to escalate, a giant DC-10 arrived and began making a series of drops.
Helicopters and small, single-engine tankers also attacked the flames, but with limited impact. Barely an hour before the burnover killed the hotshots, two tankers in Kingman were directed back to Yarnell, but not in time. As a firestorm erupted, orders were placed for six more tankers. Five responses came back: “UTF.” One plane was deployed from California, but it was too late.
In the fatal minutes, with 45 mph winds and billowing black smoke, most aircraft were grounded due to safety concerns. Those still flying, including the DC-10, were helpless forced to back off.
A synopsis by the Arizona Division of Forestry would later note, “The Yarnell Hill Fire was competing with other fires in the Southwest for scarce air resources.”
A Serious Accident Investigation Team, which reviewed the tragedy, issued seven recommendations, including a vague call for the creation of guidelines for effective use of air tankers.
Investigators for the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health identified an array of misjudgments and safety breaches during the Yarnell Hill Fire flawed management, errors by the Granite Mountain Hotshots, communication failures and a confused aerial attack. Those experts were unable to interview key aviation officials from the U.S. Forest Service, which barred employees from cooperating with the safety investigation.
A subsequent ABC News report on the 19 hotshots observed: “It will never be known if greater availability of large air tankers contracted by the U.S. Forest Service would have saved their lives, but the tragedy put on public display a system where incident commanders overseeing even large fires have to beg for planes to drop retardant.”
Requests not filled
Trouble getting help from above is not unique to the Arizona blaze.
In 2012, according to national wildfire records, nearly half of the 914 calls for tanker support went unfilled either because no aircraft were available or because the request was canceled before a plane could be provided. Last year, with the Forest Service down to just nine heavy tankers under exclusive contract, about a quarter of the requests were not filled.
Because some calls for air support get canceled by changing circumstances or are met locally, Forest Service officials say national data exaggerate the number of unmet requests for heavy tankers. But the declining supply of planes is indisputable: Just over a decade ago, the Forest Service had exclusive use of 40 large tankers and was able to answer 90 percent of the calls for slurry bombers.
Today’s shortage has been blamed on budgetary constraints, but also on a series of fatal plane crashes that temporarily dampened the federal government’s enthusiasm for heavy tankers. One by one, aviation contractors shut down, and antiquated planes were retired without replacements.
But, as monster fires swept through Arizona and other states in the past few years, Congress began pressing for more air power.
Last year, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., drafted legislation to transfer 22 military planes including seven big tankers to the Forest Service. In a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, they stressed the need to prevent future versions of the Yarnell Hill Fire and the 2013 Rim Fire that ravaged Yosemite National Park.
The senators’ request became a part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, signed into law by President Barack Obama in December. That measure turns over seven HC-130 Hercules planes from the U.S. Coast Guard, each capable of dumping up to 4,000 gallons on a single mission.
“This is a real step forward in replenishing the Forest Service’s dwindling air-tanker fleet,” McCain noted at the time.
In addition to the HC-130s, the Forest Service will get 15 C-23B Sherpa planes for use in hauling cargo and smoke jumpers. Those aircraft are undergoing tests and may be deployed on wildfires beginningin 2015.
Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman with the National Interagency Fire Center, said the additional aircraft will increase prospects of suppressing wildfires early so they don’t get big, dangerous and costly.
But none of the Hercules tankers will be ready for firefighting this year, Jones said, because they need new wings, airframe modifications and retardant tanks. That work is to be done by the Department of Defense with $130 million provided in the budget bill. The first tanker is to be transferred to the Forest Service in 2015, and most others will not be available until 2017.
The Forest Service also is awaiting delivery of seven other giant aircraft known as “next generation” tankers that will be faster and more modern than most retardant bombers now in the wildfire arsenal. Contracts were issued just seven days after the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy. At most, two of those planes could be ready this year.
If the fire season turns fierce, NIFC may also call on the military, Canada and Alaska to provide additional tankers if the aircraft are available.
Although the supply of retardant-dropping airships remains problematic in the short term, by this fire season Harbour and Jones said the Forest Service could have up to 17 tankers under exclusive contracts with aviation firms. That would be an 88 percent increase over 2013.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Jones said.”We’ve gotten funding and extra aircraft. Now, the challenge is getting them flying.”
Despite that upbeat analysis, Bill Gabbert, a veteran firefighter who operates Wildfire Today, the industry’s leading wildland-fire analytical website, said the preparedness of America’s tanker fleet remains “very poor, the same ranking I’ve given it the past five years.”
Gabbert said the nation needs at least 35 tankers under exclusive contract during fire season, triple the number now available. A decade ago, he said, the Forest Service knew its fleet of World War II- and Korean War-vintage planes faced retirement, yet made no plans to replace them. “Now, the chickens have come home to roost,” Gabbert said.
Tanker troubles peaked at the worst possible time: as climate change, drought and land-use policies produced an unprecedented flurry of mega-fires.
In 2013, heavy air tankers were called to fight wildland blazes more than twice as frequently as any year since 1996, according to NIFC data.
As of late February, the Forest Service had 10 heavy tankers under exclusive contracts. Nearly all are retrofitted military planes, veritable dinosaurs built more than a half-century ago and susceptible to mechanical problems. Since 2000, 22 crew members have died in crashes.
The Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversee wildland fires across more than 700 million acres of public lands through federal, state and local interagency agreements. For years, they’ve been pleading for new aircraft.
America’s wildfire agencies use an armada of smaller aircraft to supplement tankers and compensate for the cutbacks. Jones said there are up to 225 water-dropping helicopters available, plus 69 single-engine tankers (known as SEATs). But those ships cannot carry huge payloads of retardant or fill the same firefighting needs.
“To maintain mission safety and effectiveness, the Forest Service and Department of the Interior have concluded that the air tanker fleet needs to be replaced with safer aircraft,” noted a 2012 report by the agencies, which requested up to 28 modern tankers.
According to the Government Accountability Office, Forest Service officials bear blame for the dwindling tanker supply. Despite congressional pressure, the Forest Service repeatedly failed to scientifically determine the best use of retardant. A GAO report last year said there is no empirical data on tanker drops showing what works, what doesn’t, or what’s cost-effective.
Jones said detailed research is under way. Heavy tankers on the Yarnell Hill Fire were taking part in that study when 19 hotshots died. Investigative records show at least one pilot dropped a load on a backfire that had been set by the Granite Mountain Hotshots as they tried to save Yarnell. The mistake upset supervisor Eric Marsh and forced a change in suppression tactics just hours before the crew was overcome.
There is no estimated date of completion for the study, and, according to the GAO, no way to determine how many more big tankers are needed, or at what cost.
‘Crazy’ fire season
In the meantime, drought has magnified the urgency, and peril, in Arizona and the West.
The Southwest Coordinating Center, which oversees regional wildfire suppression, recently posted an outlook for the coming fire season: “Erratic and extreme fire-behavior potential will need to be considered as a given. … Outside any typical historic frame of reference.”
Many areas of Arizona saw less than half of their normal rainfall amounts during the first quarter of 2014. Those conditions are compounded by last year’s moist monsoon that produced dense undergrowth, now dry.
Chuck Maxwell, forecaster at the Coordinating Center, said spring storms are possible, “but nothing that changes the big picture.” Come May and June, “we could have a real quick four- to six-week season that’s really crazy.”
Wildfires in the United States burn about 7 million acres a year. An estimated 70,000 communities built in or near wildlands are considered at risk.
Due to climate change and other factors, the burn season is now 78 days longer than a few decades ago, and blazes consume double the acreage.
Suppression costs have skyrocketed: The Forest Service fire and aviation budget this year is $2.4 billion a billion dollars more than a decade ago.
NIFC, based in Boise, Idaho, serves as a hub for wildfire operations, working with 11 regional coordinating centers that rely on other government agencies for crews and equipment. The result is a maze of overlapping duties, responsibilities and assignments.
When a wildfire starts, incident commanders evaluate weather, fuels, topography, property threats and other factors. Based on conditions, they request crews, aircraft and other resources. Setting priorities is like doing triage in an emergency room with more patients than doctors.
Initial attack is critical, but potentially expensive. It costs the Forest Service about $27,000 a day to have one heavy tanker available for immediate response, plus $7,000 more per hour of flight. In recent years, the Forest Service has spent about $50 million annually on tankers.
Cost-cutting by the U.S. Department of Agriculture was a major factor in the cutback on tankers, but most experts say that’s a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach. According to Forest Service data, wildfires that escape early control cost on average more than $2 million to extinguish. A 2002 report noted that, especially in severe burn conditions, an overwhelming initial attack on a fire likely saves money, resources, communities and lives.
“It’s the fires that get away that make the news and get names causing all the damage,” said Rick Hatton, president of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, a contractor that provides giant DC-10s, the largest fire-suppression aircraft.
Gabbert said a commander assigned to an infant fire in treacherous conditions faces a tough judgment call: Order in large tankers, and he has to explain spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to extinguish a blaze that burned just a few acres. Don’t request heavy air support, and he may have to explain why he allowed a little fire to grow into a monster, destroying hundreds of homes, endangering lives and costing millions of dollars.
Gabbert and Hatton advocate a “first-strike” strategy, controlling fires immediately with bombers and using ground crews to put them out. “You should be using them for overkill rather than underkill,” Hatton said. “The object is to see that all fires are so small you’ve never even heard of them.”
Gabbert pointed out that no planes or firefighters were used against the Yarnell Hill Fire on the afternoon it started, and barely any air or ground attack occurred on Day 2. “If they had used overwhelming force, it could have made a difference,” he said.
“Any fire could have been hit harder, earlier,” agreed Hatton, whose DC-10 was making drops on Yarnell at the time of the incident. “But you’ve got to remember, it’s pretty easy to Monday-morning-quarterback these things, especially when people die.”
What about 2014? Are there sufficient bombers available for this fire season? Hatton paused briefly, then said: “I don’t think anyone would say we feel secure there are enough large, fixed-wing tankers in play.”