More than half a billion dollars worth of new firefighting airplane contracts should come through later this month, as the U.S. Forest Service heads into one of the hottest summers on record.
Although the names of contract winners won’t be announced before June 25, the news can’t come soon enough for Missoula-based Neptune Aviation. The company hopes to boost its new BAe-146 jet fleet from one plane to three, just weeks after a fatal crash in Utah reduced its Korean War-era P2V tanker fleet from eight to seven.
The five-year contracts to four vendors would bring on seven modern retardant bombers to the national firefighting air force. Three companies would provide two new planes apiece at a cost between $125.7 million and $178 million over five years. The fourth vendor would add one plane for $66.8 million.
U.S. Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management Director Tom Harbour told the Missoulian that more than two dozen companies offered planes for the next-generation contracts. Only Neptune produced a plane and retardant tank capable of winning an interim contract in 2011. That BAe-146, known as Tanker 40, won another one-year contract to fight fire this year.
Seven months ago, Neptune decided to add two more BAes this year regardless of the contract results, according to company President Dan Snyder. While the company wants to retire its P2Vs as quickly as possible, it also can’t risk growing faster than the Forest Service’s budget.
But that leaves in place the aging propeller-driven P2Vs that have killed 20 aviators since 1987, according to reports compiled by the International Association of Wildland Fire. With the crash-landing of a second P2V owned by contractor Minden Aviation on the same day as Neptune’s fatal crash, hard questions must be answered about the safety and usefulness of aerial firefighting.
“I’ve been in headquarters and in this job through the wings coming off on the C130-A in Carson City (Nev.), the PB4Y blowing up in Colorado, the difficult times with Neptune a decade ago and other difficult times as we changed operations,” Harbour said. “I’m no aviator, but I understand what makes an airplane safe. Our current contract necessitates an airworthy platform. I wouldn’t be flying them if I didn’t think they were safe.
“I’ve been in the business on the federal side long enough to understand Minden and Neptune have extraordinary interest that these aircraft are safe, from the perspective of pilots and co-pilots and crew chiefs that have to fly in these things.” Harbour added. “(Forest Service) Chief (Tom) Tidwell is clear he believes these platforms are safe to fly. I believe the platforms are safe to fly.”
But Harbour also believes the P2Vs’ value has neared its end.
“The issue for the P2s in my public capacity,” he said, “is they’re approaching a threshold where I don’t believe the cost to keep it maintained, flying and safe – I don’t believe we’re getting as good a return on the taxpayer dollar on the fleet as we could with newer, more efficient platforms.”
Neptune’s Snyder said operating new, jet-powered bombers “is an order of magnitude” more expensive than the older planes. But the planes’ greater range, faster speed and larger retardant loads will permit a faster tempo of fire operations, along with more safety.
“There’s been a lot of talk going around how there used to be over 40 large air tankers and now we have less than 10,” Snyder said. “But we know the aircraft we have today compared to the aircraft of yesteryear are a night-and-day difference. It’s just a guess, but I think you won’t need to see the number of aircraft you used to see in yesteryear.“
Not all the new planes may be available for this year’s fire season. The Forest Service has already called down eight CV-580 propeller-driven retardant bombers from Alaska and Canadian fire services to shore up continental firefighting forces. Those planes are of similar vintage as the Lockheed P2Vs Neptune and Minden provide.
And eight Air National Guard C-130 planes equipped with retardant tank inserts stand ready for duty. Harbour said he often gets questions why the Forest Service doesn’t go to the military for fire bombers.
“We have run the numbers every few years, to make sure we’re still on the right path,” Harbour said. “There’s countries in the world that have adopted that model (of military firefighting). We’ve adopted a model that I think makes good public policy, where private industry – in a willing-buyer, willing-seller mode – makes the best sense for our country. We’ve always said the military fits best in terms of a surge capacity.”
Others argue the whole emphasis on firefighting aircraft is misguided.
Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics has frequently challenged the safety and usefulness of retardant bombing. After the Neptune crash, he went so far as to call the reliance on aerial firefighting “immoral” because of the death rate.
“Our society’s aerial war against wildfire will continue to sacrifice lives and money in a fruitless campaign against Nature,” Stahl wrote in an email. “Each year, we dump tens of millions of gallons of toxic retardant on fires, with no evidence that these bombings improve firefighting effectiveness. There is no correlation between the amount of aerial retardant used and success in keeping fires small. We know that the best way to protect homes from wildland fire is to keep vegetation clear from around the house and build with fire-resistant roofing. Retardant doesn’t save homes; proper construction and landscaping save homes.”
Stahl backed up his claims with a 2002 federal study that reported “the safety record of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in wildland fire management is unacceptable.” His organization also successfully challenged Forest Service claims that retardant use had any measurable effect on fire spread or control.
“It’s still very difficult to prove if fire retardant is going to be effective in particular situations before you apply it,” Forest Service researcher Glenn Stein told the Missoulian last October after the agency released a set of more than 12,000 maps intended to protect endangered species from getting poisoned by retardant drops. “We know it’s effective in the lab. I’ve been a firefighter for 37 years and I know it can be effective.“
For Tony Morris of Wildfire Research Network in California, the next-generation contracts only play catch-up to the problem.
“We are, as a country, not prepared for a lot of these fires,” Morris said. “We’re down to nine large air tankers and they’re aging air tankers. What happens if the FAA grounds them for just a few days?“
But as the nation experiences more “megafires” scorching hundreds of thousands of acres, Harbour acknowledged the solution won’t come from the sky.
“The folly is to think that we can match the megafire with simply the universal soldier-firefighter, or the biggest, baddest helicopters and airplanes in the world,” Harbour said. “These megafires we’re having, they kind of are a mind-bender. Things like the Wallow fire (in 2011), or the Whitewater-Baldy fire we’re having right now call for different approaches to how we fight the fire. The most important lesson coming out of megafires, they point to predisposing conditions that allow these kinds of megafires to grow and happen. They bleed into plans we make for land, how we treat the land, the decisions we’ve made over decades about where we put communities, and how we build those communities.”
It also forces the question: How do we pay for this?
“If you know where all the money’s coming from, let me know,” Snyder said. “We can provide a lot of airplanes – we can replace every single one of our existing P2s and provide more new planes than we’ve ever provided to the agency. But knowing the financial climate of the nation, not just the agency, makes us think about our plans for expansion.“
Harbour said the proposed 2013 Forest Service budget has $24 million in new money for aerial firefighting. The rest of the next-generation contract funding would have to come out of existing firefighting funds. Over time, Harbour said the Forest Service wants to have between 18 and 28 modern large air tankers.
On Thursday, the Senate reached a rare unanimous consent vote on a measure by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., that speeds up the Forest Service’s ability to release its next-generation airplane contracts. The bill has moved over to the House of Representatives, where its fate is unknown. Without it, the Forest Service would wait 31 extra days to award the contract.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., co-sponsored the deadline exemption bill. He also harangued Tidwell on the slow pace of aircraft modernization. In a Tuesday letter, Tester noted last Sunday’s two crashes reduced the Forest Service’s operational fleet by 20 percent.
“This loss also means we must depend on additional ground and helicopter assets to make up for the lack of air tankers, a strategy that limits initial attack capabilities and which could add millions of dollars of additional costs,” Tester wrote. “Unfortunately, the Forest Service has yet to provide a long-term pathway for aircraft replacement. After nearly a decade of waiting for the Forest Service to issue a plan, the contracting companies, such as Neptune Aviation, have stepped up and purchased new planes, retrofitting them in hopes of securing individual contracts in the upcoming year, but with no long-term guarantees.”
Tester also asked the agency to develop a long-term budget for the planes for the next decade. Last week, the Forest Service awarded a $380,000 contract for a new air tanker study to “identify the appropriate number and types of aviation resources necessary to effectively meet future fire management needs.”
The departments of Interior and Agriculture last week also released their latest wildfire management strategy. While it dwelled extensively on improving communications between federal and local firefighters, it contained no discussion of aerial firefighting.
Meanwhile, more than 20 large fires rage in the West and Southwest, with the largest burning 270,000 acres. The White Rock fire that killed Neptune pilots Todd Tompkins and Ronnie Edwin Chambless was 90 percent contained by Friday at 6,355 acres, and heading into mop-up phase.
Harbour said the Forest Service’s priority is on the safety of its firefighters and those threatened by wildfire. Big parts of that involve fireproofing communities and forests, and stopping fires through initial attack before they grow into megafires.
“These decisions on modernizing aviation are made while being cognizant the only reason for aerial firefighting capability is to support that firefighter on the ground,” Harbour said. We’re working to achieve that balance. We know we can’t have all aviation we want.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.