Western wildfire fatalities: Aircraft in short supply, but 3rd highest cause of deaths
TWIN FALLS – When firefighters could no longer contain the flames threatening homes in Idaho's Wood River Valley last summer, their crew leaders 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 air tanker replacement? The U.S. Forest Service didn't have one to spare.
The Forest Service – the nation's largest and most expensive firefighting agency – contracted just 11 air tankers for suppressing wildfires last summer.
Built in 1974, Tanker 910 was first flown as a wide-body jet airliner. It was converted in 2002 to fight fire in California, where the Forest Service eventually secured an exclusive-use contract this year.
Engine failure is rare on 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 10 Tanker, 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."
Tankers 910 and 911 are the only two DC-10 air tankers the Forest Service contracts with to suppress wildfires. And Tanker 910 is scheduled to retire in 2014, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
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 agency said it would work to replace and replenish the 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 a close second.
Firefighting aircraft have been used by the Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for decades. But unlike helicopters and single-engine air tankers, large air tankers were not originally designed to suppress wildfires.
For years, federal officials retrofitted air tankers they obtained from military surplus to drop retardant. Private companies transformed commercial air tankers to meet FAA standards for fighting a wildland fire, but the strict requirements and high costs have deterred many companies over the years.
How many air tankers and other aircraft 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 the anecdotes.
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."
But how much does aerial firefighting enhance the safety of ground crews?
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 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," Hipke 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 operations 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 in which budget cuts are the norm, getting fire officials what they want is rare.
This year, BLM budget constraints forced the agency's Twin Falls District to rely on a type 3 helicopter instead of a type 2. A type 3 helicopter can hold a three-person crew and carries about 140 gallons of water. A type 2 aircraft 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 buck.
"The DC-10 brings the equivalent of five smaller airplanes," he said. "You get more retardant sooner, which is what firefighters want."
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