TWIN FALLS • When firefighters could no longer contain the flames threatening homes in the Wood River Valley this summer, fire officials looked to the sky.
“Here comes the air show,” many shouted as air tankers and helicopters were called in to drop hundreds of thousands of gallons of retardant and water onto the flames.
The wildfire was ravaging the hills surrounding Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley just days after lightning sparked the fire Aug. 7. Due to the fire’s erratic behavior, the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office ordered mass evacuations. Thousands fled the area to avoid the invading smoke and flames.
By day eight of fighting the fire, officials met at base camp to strategize against a situation defying normal flame activity.
Above them, a DC-10 heavy air tanker — known as Tanker 910 — dropped almost 12,000 gallons of retardant in eight seconds on the southern flank of the fire. But as the pilots turned it around to refuel in Pocatello, the plane began experiencing engine failure.
The aircraft’s No. 2 engine in the tail was no longer working but the two pilots managed to make a non-emergency landing at the reload base.
The air tanker would be out of commission for two days as mechanics replaced the faulty engine.
With no large air tanker flying above, firefighters back on the line at the Beaver Creek Fire were left with smaller aircraft to assist the nation’s top priority wildfire.
Why couldn’t they find an airtanker replacement? The Forest Service didn’t have one to spare.
Small and Aging Fleet
The U.S. Forest Service — the nation’s largest and most expensive firefighting agency — only owns 11 air tankers devoted to suppressing wildfires, many of which are more than 50 years old and were used in the Korean War. They are usually privately owned and work under exclusive or as-needed contracts.
First built in 1974, Tanker 910 first flight was as a wide-body jet airliner. It was converted in 2002 to fight fire in California, where the U.S. Forest Service eventually secured an exclusive-use contract this year.
Engine failure is rare on the Tanker 910, but pilots are required to train on how to land if one of the three engines fails, said Rick Hatton, chief executive officer of 10Tanker, the company that owns and flies Tanker 910 and its sister aircraft, Tanker 911.
“It’s not particularly troublesome, but it is costly,” he said. “It’ll happen again but not often.”
The Tanker 910 and 911 are the Forest Service’s only two DC-10 air tankers uses to suppress wildfires.
The Forest Service has been working with a limited fleet since 2002 when it reduced its aircraft supply from 44 to 11.
At the time, the Forest Service wrote in a report saying the agency would work to replace and replenish its aging fleet. But 10 years later the number remains the same while aviation accidents and firefighter fatalities are up.
In 2012, three aircraft crashes occurred while responding to wildfires, two of which resulted in six fatalities — the most since 2002 when five people were killed in two crashes.
Aircraft and air tanker deaths are the third highest cause of wildland firefighter fatalities, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, with heart attacks just barely outpacing aircraft-related deaths.
Aircraft has been used by the Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for decades. But unlike helicopters and single engine air tankers (SEATs), large airtankers were never designed to suppress wildfires.
For years, federal officials retrofitted airtankers they obtained from military surplus to drop retardant. Private companies transformed commercial airtankers to meet U.S. Federal Aviation Administration standards for fighting in a wildland fire, but the strict requirements and high costs have deterred interested companies over the years.
How many air tankers and other aircrafts are needed is unknown, even by the U.S. Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture, according to an August report from the Governmental Accountability Office.
According to the report, the agencies failed to provide adequate information on performance and effectiveness when identifying what firefighting aircraft it needed.
The Forest Service wants to buy aircraft as part of its long-term aircraft plan but it’s “unable to justify its previous plans for purchasing large air tankers to the Office of Management and Budget,” mainly because it has not provided proof of what works and what doesn’t, the report found.
“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,” the report stated. Instead, fire officials decide when and where to use aircraft based on observation and experience. While this may be effective, there is no empirical data supporting these anecdotes.
The report’s conclusions came just a few months after the Forest Service promised it would almost double its air tanker fleet by next year’s wildfire season.
According to the release, the Forest Service finalized seven contracts with “Next Generation” air tankers to add to the aging fleet called “legacy aircraft,” or tankers the agency has used for years or even decades.
Next Generation air tankers will all be turbine powered, carry a minimum of 3,000 gallons of retardants and have a cruising speed of at least 300 knots fully loaded, according to the release.
The plan also includes contracting with large air tankers like DC-10s but officials have not announced if an additional large tanker will be used in next year’s fleet.
Fire officials agree that aircraft, whether in the form of helicopters, SEATs or airtankers, is essential in assisting the boots on the ground in wildfire suppression.
Retardant and water drops don’t stop or put out flames but they do slow the rate of the fire’s progression, allowing firefighters valuable time to dig line or plan where they should allocate resources.
Getting What’s Needed
Without aircraft, fires can take longer to put out, said Eric Hipke, training specialist with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
“If you have the money and the resources, you can fight (fire) differently,” Hipke said. “But you don’t always get what you want.”
There is also the question of how much aircraft enhances firefighter safety.
Hipke is one of the few survivors of the 1994 South Canyon Fire that killed 14 firefighters just outside of Glenwood Springs, Colo.
The day they died, smokejumpers and hotshot crews were sent in to build a line around the fire to contain the flames. Unbeknownst to them, the fire was getting ready to blow up the steep ridge where they were digging line. Once it did blow, the fire outpaced many of the men and women desperately trying to get out of its path.
Over the years, many firefighters and officials have offered their two cents on what they would have done differently.
“I had one guy from southern California tell me that he never would have gone in,” he said. “He said he would have drowned the hill with water from helicopters. We just didn’t have them.”
In some instances, fire management officers are preferring to use helicopters and SEATs over the heavy air tankers.
Large air tankers may be beasts in the air, but they are monsters on limited federal budgets. Exclusive-use contracts with a large air tanker like a DC-10 cost as high as $12,000 per hour to use on a wildfire or $75,000 per day.
Helicopters, on the other hand, are much cheaper to use. A medium helicopter can be as high as $2,000 per hour or $12,000 per day.
“I’d like to see more helicopters,” said Josh Brinkley, fire operation supervisor for the BLM Twin Falls district office.
Helicopters can go to the nearest available water source, Brinkley said. Heavy air tankers must fly back to the nearest refuel stations, which can take more than hour to land, refuel and then fly back to a wildfire.
In an era where “budget cuts” is the norm, getting fire officials what they want is rare.
This year, the BLM budget constraints forced the agency’s Twin Falls District to rely on a Type III helicopter instead of a Type II. A Type III helicopter can hold a three-person crew and carries about 140 gallons of water. A Type II aircraft allows can carry a six-person crew and carry nearly 300 gallons of water.
Hatton, on the other hand, argued that large tankers like his Tanker 910 offer the public more bang for their tax dollar buck.
“The DC-10 brings the equivalent of five smaller airplanes,” he said. “You get more retardant sooner, which is what firefighters want.”