New contracts allow Forest Service to shift on-call planes as necessary
There are fewer aircraft dedicated exclusively to fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service this year, since more of the planes that drop water and retardant on fires are now on a “call-when-needed” basis.
The reorganization of air tankers came after a five-year contract expired last year, prompting the Forest Service to shift seven planes from exclusive use to call-when-needed contracts, according to Jennifer Jones, a public affairs specialist with the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management Program.
In the 2017 fire season, the Forest Service had 26 air tankers under contract nationwide, 20 on exclusive use and five that would be called up when needed, plus a Forest Service air tanker, said Jones. In 2018, the Forest Service will have 25 air tankers, 13 under exclusive-use contracts and 11 call-when-needed, plus the Forest Service plane. There are also eight military aircraft that can be deployed if needed.
That juggling of resources has alarmed some members of Congress and some long-time firefighters.
“I’m concerned about a policy that would leave these air tankers unable to fly — when they are ordered — for up to 48 hours. With the number of fire starts, I understand the Forest Service is trying to be economical, but how does it add up if those fire starts turn into more explosive fires?” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) at a Senate committee hearing about the Forest Service and its budget last week.
Under the exclusive-use contract, air tankers had to respond within 15 minutes, but it could take up to two days to find a call-when-needed aircraft and for the plane to arrive from wherever it’s stationed, said Cantwell. “In 48 hours, a lot of damage can be done,” she told Vicki Christiansen, interim chief of the Forest Service, at the hearing. Air tankers are used mainly in initial attack, but they are also deployed on large fires.
Jones said that dire assessment doesn’t completely take into account the way the Forest Service will use the planes, since even call-when-needed air tankers will be mobilized — and be permanently available — when fire activity and weather dictate and the exclusive-use fleet is in high demand, she said.
“They will fly for a few weeks — it won’t take 48 hours every time they go to a fire,” said Jones. Once they’re mobilized, the call-when-needed aircraft will be stationed near fire activity so they can be deployed quickly, she said.
Twisp resident Bill Moody, who retired after three-and-a-half decades as a smokejumper and coordinator of aerial fire operations, was also concerned about the shift. “Planes are more effective when they’re available as soon as possible,” said Moody, who said it’s best to have a mix of large and very-large air tankers. “It’s common sense — if they stage them closer, they’re more effective, although [fire managers] still have to compete nationally.”
“Under call-when-needed, the response would be more delayed since they’re not being paid to sit there,” said Moody. “There are a lot of inefficiencies when it’s call-when-needed.”
The two types of contracts are negotiated differently. Exclusive-use contracts pay a certain amount for 160 days a year, whether the planes fly or not, plus an hourly flight rate. The call-when-needed aircraft receive only an hourly flight rate which, because there’s no base pay, tends to be higher, said Jones.
While on-call contracts may appear cheaper at first glance, Cantwell said the arrangement could end up costing taxpayers more. She pointed to the $2 billion worth of timber that burned on the Colville Reservation several years ago. “How do you equate saving if in fact more land burns up because we don’t have the immediate resource?” she asked Christiansen.
Comparing the hourly rates can be misleading, said Jones. Although the on-call rate is higher, the contractor may be paid less over the entire season because the air tankers weren’t deployed, she said.
Balancing needs, money
The Forest Service is seeking to strike the right balance between the two types of contracts and will evaluate them each year and make adjustments, said Christiansen. By using scientific predictions about weather and fire behavior, the Forest Service can deploy firefighting resources appropriately, she said.
“We are confident that we have the aircraft we need, when we need it, through the combination of the exclusive use, the call-when-needed, the MAFFS [military aircraft] — and then when we can call our partners down from Alaska and Canada,” said Christiansen.
The contract that expired had four older-model planes that have been completely retired, plus three newer-generation aircraft that are still in use through an on-call contract, said Jones. Because the newer planes are more expensive, the agency has to be fiscally prudent in finding the right balance, said Christiansen.
The 2018 exclusive-use contracts include two DC-10s (very large airtankers), which carry between 5,000 and 11,500 gallons of fire retardant; the other 11 are a mix of large aircraft that carry between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons, according to Jones. The call-when-needed contracts will also have two DC-10s, plus nine smaller air tankers.
DC-10s were used in the Carlton and Okanogan Complex fires in 2014 and 2015, said Moody, who is now vice president of fire operations and incident response with Global SuperTanker Services, where he works on a 747 supertanker adapted for firefighting. The 747 supertanker was used to fight fires in the U.S. for the first time in the 2017 fire season in California. They have contracts with several states, counties and cities this year, said Jim Wheeler, the company’s CEO.
The Forest Service is still working to get another solicitation out for a new exclusive-use contract, said Jones. Because the contracts have a huge monetary value and are subject to protest by unsuccessful vendors, they are especially complex, she said. She couldn’t say why a new solicitation wasn’t underway and could provide no timetable for when it might be issued.
It’s been almost three years since the Forest Service has issued a successful request for proposals for large and very-large airtankers, said Wheeler. After Wheeler’s company successfully challenged a previous solicitation for restrictions on the size of aircraft, the Forest Service was directed to issue a new request for bids early this year, but none has come out, he said.
The Forest Service can issue up to five one-year extensions on the type of contract that expired, according to Wheeler.
More firefighting funds
At the Senate hearing, Christiansen described other resources expected to help during this year’s fire season. The Forest Service received an additional $500 million from Congress for fire suppression, bringing the total to $1.5 billion. But even with that increase, Christiansen predicted the Forest Service will have to transfer funds to fight fires this year, since scientists predict firefighting costs will hit $1.9 billion.
Christiansen was the Washington state forester in 2006, the year of the Tripod Fire, which burned more than 175,000 acres north of Winthrop, which Christiansen called her “ah-hah moment.” She acknowledged that fire behavior is changing. “We now refer to a fire year, not a fire season,” she said. Last year, total fire-related costs for the Forest Service were $2.4 billion, the highest ever.
The spending act passed by Congress in March also provided other tools for forest management, including an additional $40 million for hazardous-fuels reduction this year. Congress expanded opportunities for the Forest Service to work with states and the private sector on restoration and thinning projects. They also streamlined the environmental-review process, which may expedite some wildfire-resilience projects, said Jones.
Although the spending act reformed the way the Forest Service pays for firefighting so that the agency will no longer have to transfer money from other programs to fight wildfires — so-called fire-borrowing — that fix doesn’t kick in till 2020.
“In all fairness, the Forest Service has been put previously in a pretty untenable position, since they were not given enough money to fight these fires,” said Wheeler.