Editorials You Wouldn’t Find in the New York Times- Air Tankers

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, left, greets the flight crew of the Boeing 747-400 Global SuperTanker after it dropped half its capacity of 19,400-gallons of water over the airfield during a ceremony Thursday, May 5, 2016, at the Colorado Springs, Colo., Airport demonstrating firefighting capabilities of the world’s largest firefighting plane. The Spirit of John Muir plane will be stationed out of the Colorado Springs Airport and will be able to respond to fires around the world. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)

Where you stand depends on where you sit and all that… not very often do I see a blog contributor mentioned in an editorial in my hometown paper…from the Colorado Springs Gazette editorial board. If anyone knows the FS side of the story, or the FS side of the Waldo Canyon story in the editorial, please comment. Here’s a link, and below is the editorial.

As fires race through forests in the West, threatening property and lives, the world’s mightiest firefighting air tanker sits idle on a runway at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs.

Like Nero watching Rome burn, federal officials fiddle with a contract and won’t let the aircraft fly. The plane offers taxpayers the lowest per-gallon delivery of retardant for any fire requiring two or more planes, with an ability to drop nearly 20,000 gallons of retardant.

U.S. Forest Service officials won’t offer Springs-based Global SuperTanker Services a contract allowing more than 5,000 gallons of suppressant. Forest officials won’t say why.
A 5,000-gallon limit defeats the purpose of fighting fires with a 747, which can dramatically increase the efficiency and results of aerial attacks.

The whole affair brings up sad memories of the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned for almost three days before federal authorities allowed a group of Air Force C-130 firefighting planes to fly.

Then-Mayor Steve Bach, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn and others expressed dismay when administrative process superseded the urgency of using every tool available to fight for property and lives.

The C-130s were based about 10 miles from Waldo Canyon, at Peterson, and could have battled the fire in its infancy – when airstrikes are more effective.

By the time the paperwork was signed, the inferno was out of control and consuming homes.

With a cruising speed of 600 miles an hour, the Spring-based Spirit of John Muir 747 can reach most wildfire-prone areas of the country in less than two hours. It can drop its entire load and leave a 200-foot wide fire barrier nearly a mile long. Alternatively, ground-based fire commanders can order multiple smaller drops.

The plane has double the capacity of any other tanker in the world. Unlike the others, it can fight fires throughout the night.

We don’t know why this tanker is grounded through fire season, but news reports suggest environmental politics may be in the mix.

Outside magazine reported on the Springs-based tanker in 2016. The publication paraphrased Timothy Ingalsbee, co-director of the Association of Fire Ecology, complaining that aerial fire retardants aren’t “ecologically friendly,” so why drop them from a bigger plane?

Andy Stahl heads the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an activist group of federal workers dedicated to holding their employer accountable for “responsible land stewardship.” The Associated Press quoted him opposing the tanker last week, in a story about the grounding of John Muir.

Wildfires don’t negotiate. They don’t listen to environmentalists or seek permission from bureaucrats.

Wildfires quickly destroy forests, property and lives. The Forest Service is responsible for controlling them and should stop fiddling while our national forests burn.

For partisan-watchers, John Hickenlooper is a D governor.
For tech enthusiasts more on the tanker here at Wildfire Today (with videos).

40 thoughts on “Editorials You Wouldn’t Find in the New York Times- Air Tankers”

  1. Hi Sharon.
    I am not up-to-date on the air tanker controversy–definitely hope someone from Aviation and Fire and/or Business Operations in Forest Service can chime in. However, back in my Forest Service headquarters days I recall a company that was always trying to coerce Forest Service to buy giant Russian air-tankers, usually used occasion of a large fire to tout their capacity and exert political pressure. Sounds like same tactic. Pretty good article on both sides of the issue in May 11, 2016 Outside magazine.

  2. The FS “side” of the Waldo Canyon fire is captured well in this report to the Pike-San Isabel NFs by a Forest Service fire analyst. These excerpts summarize its main points:

    . . . if you look at the Colorado Front Range as a whole, [Waldo Canyon] was not epic or unprecedented; it was just in a new location. It is an all too familiar phenomena occurring across the Foothills—big, fast‐moving fires quickly overwhelm local suppression resources resulting in a WUI fire disaster.

    If we want to prevent these disasters, local and government agencies, organizations, and especially homeowners must recognize the WUI fire problem as a home ignition issue and understand how homes ignite in the HIZ. Through actions within the HIZ, homes can be made ignition resistant and withstand a high‐intensity fire. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on the wildlands and less on the home—the reverse should be true.

    This FEMA report explains Colorado Springs’ new Firewise building codes, neighborhood chipping program, and other post-Waldo taken to ensure that the next fire isn’t a WUI disaster.

    • I think we’re talking about suppression tactics here not fuel treatments..?? I think they wanted air tankers because a big fire was moving towards two cities, Colorado Springs (second largest in the State)(40th most populous city in the country). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terrain, this shows Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs. According to wikipedia 30,000 people were evacuated in Colorado Springs.

      • The number of homes lost to wildland fire is unrelated to air tanker use. The Forest Service’s “side of the story” is that homes are lost because Firewise practices are not followed. I’ve yet to find any published research that demonstrates fire retardant use is empirically linked to home loss, nor could the Forest Service find such studies to cite in its aerial fire retardant EIS.

        • Maybe I’m overly logical, but if the FS believes that all it needs to do on fires is make sure homeowners do Firewise, then they don’t really need hand crews or any other suppression technology either? But if that is the FS side of the story, why are they out there with crews and so on..?
          I tend to go by what agencies and people do, compared to what they say.

          • Having been on numerous fires where structures have been threatened/lost, and been on the ground during extreme fire behavior in which lives were lost a short distance away, I can without a doubt say that aerial support has saved structures and lives, regardless of what empirical data shows. Maybe the problem is in part that decision makers have not had to work their way up, gaining much needed practical experience to temper the paper knowledge that may or may not accurately reflect the reality on the ground.
            Once again we have groups with apparently no practical experience being able to secure more work for themselves by now showing a need for more papers to be written regarding decades of on the ground truth……………

          • The Forest Service is not in the home-protection business. That’s the job of state and local fire departments. If you’re counting on the U.S. Forest Service to protect your home, you’d better have good insurance.

            As to the utility of hand crews in controlling large, home-threatening fires, Forest Service research found that “firefighter crews do not tend to contribute to controlled fire line production.” The same study also found that “Air resources (helicopters and air tankers) did not appear to have a significant relationship with controlled fire line.” Use of bulldozers and fire engines, on the other hand, did make a difference. The study is worth reading carefully as it includes important caveats, e.g., hand crews might make a difference in mopping-up and indirect (back-burning) line establishment.

            • I believe, but may be wrong, in that since private portions of fires are usually supervised by state and local resources the FS chose not to use the data or did not track the data.
              In mutual aide and joint command situations things get pretty confusing, especially regarding red carded aircraft, unless there are existing agreements already in place. This has largely been remedied in recent years but still pops up.
              There have been several times that FS supervisors have not allowed State approved resources to take action on fires located on FS managed lands. Unfortunately, in the case of the Blossom fire on the Rogue Siskiyou, the lack of utilizing available resources to do bucket work on 3 burning snags, resulted in millions of dollars in suppression costs and loss of both federal and eventually private resources. There have also been numerous instances where tankers were used on federal land, under state protection, to slow fire spread and intensity to allow the dozers to get line constructed.
              While research papers are helpful, it should be tempered by on the ground truthing of tactics and effectiveness.

              • While anecdotal information (“evidence based on hearsay“) can be helpful, scientific research and hard facts are a better basis for policy decisions. 🙂

                The study used the Resource Order and Status System, “a comprehensive data base for federal wildland fire management resources [that] tracks all tactical, logistical, and support resources mobilized by the incident dispatch community” to tabulate the resources used on each fire. See page 231, footnote 7. Thus, it appears you are wrong — private, state and local resources were tallied, too.

                • While they tracked the resources ordered under ROSS, they did not necessarily track resources ordered by local and State agencies, who often are the first to respond and those resources were not necessarily ordered up under ROSS. Many of the resources used by State & Local agencies are not even contracted under ROSS. I also didn’t see any reference to VIPER resources being included. This would especially pertain to fires near the interface, which would be the areas most likely to benefit from the use of retardant, since there are generally resources to take advantage of the reduced intensity after retardant use. That being said, I have also watched FS employees sit on a ridge and order up retardant drops round robin, with no ground forces in the area, this was never intended to stop the fire, but merely “retard” the spread and keep it in check while forces were put in place.
                  The statement that…” retardant was not effective in stopping fires” would be true, since it was never intended to stop fires, but it was intended to retard and minimize intensity short term. While the evidence is not included in the research paper, it in no way makes it anecdotal, in fact the instances I sighted above were first hand (direct evidence). There seems to be a large disconnect between what the research paper sights and first hand experience on the ground, maybe as I suggested before, the decision makers and nay sayer’s need to get on the ground – on the active line, then compare this experience to their own paper.

            • Andy.. as you know Forest Service research is complex entity full of people who do different kinds of research, using different methods, leading to different conclusions. Certainly I think it would be more accurate to say ” a paper by a university and two Forest Service economists”- that would draw a picture for readers of people who want to study fires from an economic/management science perspective. I think the authors did a super job of making the connection between their research and the real world here in the discussion (my italics):

              We want to make it absolutely clear that the results do not suggest that reducing the use of ground crews from large wildfire suppression operations will improve outcomes. Ground crews are considered a critical and necessary suppression resource. However, many of the actions in which they engage do not produce direct fireline that ultimately resides along the final fire perimeter on any given day. Ground crews often engage in indirect strategies such as burnout operations where the results of these efforts are not realized for several operational periods. Additionally, mopping up (extinguishing or removing burning material near control lines to prevent future spread) is critical in assuring that wildfires do not move beyond the existing period, but such activities are not credited within our definition of held fire lines since it occurs subsequent to the establishment of the fire perimeter. Further investigation is required to examine the effectiveness of suppression resources on these specific activities that are not included in this analysis. These results clearly confirm that those suppression resource production models used in a variety of IA models (such as Fried and Fried, 1996; Ntaimo et al., 2013; Wei et al., 2015) are not applicable to modeling large complex wildfire incidents. Fundamentally, suppression of large wildfires is not consistent with simple IA models of fireline production arresting a growing perimeter, confirm the findings of Finney et al. (2009) that large fire suppression is opportunistic. Wildfire perimeters are defined by a complex combination of environmental conditions, experienced weather, and management actions that require additional study.”
              What the economists are saying is that it is hard to apply a simple model of efficiency of fireline production to a complex thing like a wildfire, with which I’m sure our practitioner friends would agree!

  3. Makes perfect sense. NOT! We have the ability to protect human and private resources, but a few decide that it’s humans who created the problem so let them burn. Humans are part of nature and nature is constantly evolving.
    Federal land managers need to be held criminally and civilly liable for any fire that escapes federal lands, if any and all resources available aren’t utilized. If they can be expected to have NEPA for wildfires, they can be expected to have all paperwork in order to fully utilize any resource available, to its capacity. They should also be liable if they don’t manage lands adjacent to private ownership, to reduce fuels and create a firewise buffer on federal land. Why should private property be less valuable or be held to a higher expectation than public land?

    • “They should also be liable if they don’t manage lands adjacent to private ownership, to reduce fuels and create a firewise buffer on federal land. Why should private property be less valuable or be held to a higher expectation than public land?”

      Why should federal taxpayers/landowners subsidize fire protection for private property? The Forest Service could entertain a proposal from the private landowner to pay for fuel reduction on public lands, but environmental effects and alternatives that involve actions only on the private property would have to be considered.

      My neighbor isn’t liable for his tree falling on my house unless he is negligent (like ignoring rot that I have pointed out to him). At what point is a landowner negligent for not cutting down trees that might burn?

      • Jon after 2 decades of increased build up and continual acknowledgement of increased suppression problem due to excessive fuels, fires increasing in magnitude and size, it would be hard to claim that the landowner was unaware of the additional hazard from their property.

      • When you own land, you have a responsibility to be a good neighbor and reduce hazards that will cross over onto others’ land, be it prairie dog colonies or fires ….
        Given that it’s a tremendous task, other entities have stepped up to the plate to fund projects, including water providers, neighboring landowners, states, and so on. People are happily out partnering to get work done, but your point seems to be that these FS folks shouldn’t be working with partners because they have no responsibility? No WUI fuel treatments?

        • If one of the 1% bought an inholding in a national forest, but found that trees on national forest land blocked the view from their new mansion, should the Forest Service cut them down? How about if their house was safely in a secure subdivision, but they don’t want a fire to wreck their view of the national forest on the mountainside? Or they don’t want to have to pay more for their water because they need a filtration plant due to possible fires? Or maybe there are direct safety concerns. Two questions should be asked: is there a legal obligation to do anything, and if not are there other reasons to. I’m not saying the FS “shouldn’t” partner. I’m questioning the legal obligation, but also asking fiscal and equitable questions about who “should” pay.

          The basic legal principles defining what a “good” neighbor’s responsibility is are negligence and nuisance. These may apply differently to the federal government, but I agree that there are incentives for the federal government to be a better neighbor than the legal minimum. (I think there could be a debate about “responsibility” to either kill or protect prairie dogs for the benefit of neighbors.)

          (353 – It’s not just the awareness of the hazard that is relevant, but whether the amount of hazard is unreasonable to a reasonable person. I think fire risk is a lot harder call than an individual hazard tree.)

          • Those are great questions, Jon! I’d broaden it to “should the FS do anything it isn’t legally required to do.” I don’t think there is a legal requirement to provide developed ski areas.. so maybe the FS should revoke the permits ;).
            All kidding aside, I think there once was an effort to write down all the FS’s legal mandates so that folks could understand what a bare-bones FS would look like. Does anyone else remember that?

            • Under the 1982 planning regulations each forest was required to develop a number of “benchmarks” to provide information for forest planning. In addition to maximum production possibilities, one was “The minimum level of management which would be needed to maintain and protect the unit as part of the National Forest System together with associated costs and benefits;” (36 CFR §219.12(e)(1))

          • Jon
            The agency shouldn’t be responsible for private property protection, but if they cannot contain a wildfire to their own property and haven’t taken steps to prevent fire from spreading to private property, then I do think they have a liability. This liability currently is held on private landowners when a fire spreads onto federal land.

            Generally, on a wildfire if an agency orders resources, including retardant, they pay for it. That being said if the USFS wouldn’t have approved the use of the supertanker it would have been dead in the water, since the majority of large fires are on federal land. (a whole other dead horse to kick.) It’s temporary approval should give the opportunity to see the benefits and reduction in overall cost of retardant.
            You are correct that additional fire risk is more difficult to assess, but there are still enough fire managers that can assess if there is a reasonable chance of containing a fire for the given conditions. Example – the agency doesn’t eliminate snags along the boundary and then, due to safety, cannot make a reasonable effort to control and prevent the spread of the fire to private lands, they should be liable. Whereas leaving snags in the interior of their management area may prevent suppression actions and allow the fire to grow, it is not spreading into private and therefore they don’t increase their liability.

            • The cases on private landowner liability that I am aware of are the result of an action taken by the landowner that is negligent (usually starting a fire on their land that spreads to federal land, as in the Moonlight case). Liability for failure to act (to cut down trees) is going to be a harder case to make, especially in a case where the cause of the damage or injury is hard to sort out because the fire is naturally ignited.

              • No disagreement here. That being said I believe that there is enough precedent on record and more being made each season that failing to cut snags creates a safety issue. The danger of increased difficulty in suppression due to snags has also long been documented. We have had to snag haul routes and around landings for decades. When a landowner, any landowner, fails to make a defensible space, every effort to suppress the spread of fire cannot happen. The source of ignition is irrelevant if you have created or failed to mitigate an additional hazard. I think if a case were to go to court a jury may not have that difficult of a time determining liability.

                  • And as the death toll from falling trees mounts, they will have less success. There are numerous precedents already set, that allow the removal of snags for safety and it’s enforceable thru OSHA. With the increasing fatalities on the lines from snags, it’s a matter of time before we go back to less snag retention. Another unintended consequence of environmentalists not being reasonable.

                    • Trees falling on firefighters accounts for about 4% of wildland firefighting fatalities. Aerial operations, vehicle accidents, and heart attacks are the three biggest killers.

                      Of the firefighters killed by falling trees, some die when the tree is being cut down. It’s difficult to pin down the proportion killed from a tree being felled versus those who die from an uncut tree. My anecdotal impression, however, is that the first number exceeds the second. Anyone have those statistics readily?

                    • Once again, thanks Andy for taking the time to provide some actual facts and figures to help steer this discussion and debate.

                      Here’s a pie chart from the USFS report Andy linked to.

                    • Now that we have an actual number of fatalities, the question is how many are acceptable? We’ve tried to mitigate the other hazards thru pack testing, intensive drivers training, etc. yet we are increasing the risk from snags. I’m curious how many fires those advocating for more snags have been on?

                      But back to the issue of suppression and liability. I have been on hundreds of fires and any time there are known snags on the line, suppression is halted or greatly reduced until the hazard can be mitigated either by falling or explosives. The idea that you can intentionally leave snags along a boundary and then as a result not prevent the fire from leaving federal ground and burning onto private would be a good one for a jury to decide.

                  • Remember, this is a straw man argument that takes something that has happened only a few times and makes it seem like it happens all the time. It’s also clear that there are some very important nuances to specific hazard tree removal projects and sometimes the U.S. Forest Service plans to cut much more than just ‘snags along forest roads.’

                    • Snags often fall, blocking roads. My last season of work, a pair of people were hunting and a tree fell across the road. They had to spend the night out there, and we had to rescue them. It was on a secondary logging road but, they were driving a late model Impala, not designed for such roads but, there they were. They had actually started a fire, hoping to burn through the log. Again, more unsupported accusations of “more”.

                  • A quick google search shines some light onto this situation and provides examples of some of the nuances to the hazard tree issue.

                    For example, “Chad Hanson, director of a small California nonprofit, says he agrees that dead trees that pose falling hazards should be removed. But he said trunks should be left on the ground to provide habitat instead of being incinerated or removed. ‘Once you fell the trees, they’re no longer a hazard,’ he said. (SOURCE)

                    Also, anyone can view the U.S. Forest Service’s Response to Comments Angora Hazard Tree Removal Project and see more examples of the nuances.

                    Dr. Hanson said in those comments, “For large trees that are actually dead, if such trees need to be felled as hazard trees, please do not remove such trees but, rather, leave them as large log habitat for small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and invertebrates.”

                    Also, in the Angora comments you see this comment from Jim Hildinger, a businessman with the Angora Lakes Resort, who said: “We question the cutting of very large trees along Tahoe Mtn. Rd. We request that far more intense supervision by the Forest Service be identified and be a part of the operational contract. If marking and cutting were separated by a thirty day period it would allow for third party inspection before cutting started.”

                    • Totally ridiculous to leave such fuel concentrations next to the roads. Calling massive amounts of logs next to roads “habitat” is clearly ludicrous. The many hazard tree projects I worked on required full cleanup of logging slash, as per the fuels people. That includes logs. The Forest Service doesn’t need any third party inspections, and the courts won’t impose that. The Trump Administration should provide CE’s to expedite such projects, and support them in court. Let’s hope that the Appeals Courts will refuse listen to opponents of public safety, including the ignition of massive fuels along roads, where human-caused fires often happen.

  4. Kind of off the subject of the super tanker itself, but still in the spirit of the article, I offer this: in nature there’s this thing called “balance of nature” or “homeostasis.” You should look it up. Fires MUST occur in nature. It’s one of the biggest reasons people see all the beetle-kill trees in the mountains. Fire was not allowed to do its job and, therefore, it causes problems. The conflagrations that occurred in california and Colorado in the past years were direct results of too much underbrush, litter, and overgrowth due to the LACK of fire. Too many people encroach on the forest but don’t want the actual fact that nature does this. Forests burn. They’re SUPPOSED to burn. Only fools don’t understand this.

    • 84% of all US wildfires are human-caused. Which ones of those should we allow to burn, free-range? You can pretend that our current forests are ‘natural’ but, you would be wrong. Too many people want a pre-human landscape, while ignoring all those people roaming our forests.

      We can plan for human-caused firestorms…… or not.

    • Welcome to the blog, John! Just so you know, generally we are unlike the rest of the internet that calls each other “fools” or assumes the others just need to “look something up.” I disagree with you (note that I didn’t call you a silly person) about the “balance of nature”- that is an idea that some humans had about nature, not a thing that really exists independent of people’s perceptions. I think Dan Botkin said it best “we find that nature undisturbed is not constant in form, structure or proportion but change at every scale of time and space. The old idea of a static landscape, like a single musical chord sounded foresver, must be abandoned, for such a landscape never existed except in our imagination. Nature undisturbed by human influence seems more like a symphony whose harmonies arise from variation and change over many scales of time and space, changing with individual births and deaths, local disruptions and recoveries, larger-scale responses to climate from one glacial age to another, and to the slower alterations of soils and yet larger variations between glacial ages.” p 87 of his book The Moon in the Nautilus Shell. We had an interesting discussion about all this back in 2013 in the Virtual Book Club https://virtualbookclubforestpolicy.wordpress.com/

    • Only fools ignore the fact, there is also through the use a developed technology the ability to reduce the need for fire in many areas, especially after the fact that fire has been excluded for a hundred years. Only a fool would continue to think that we can put the genie back in the bottle and have “Natural Fire” in areas where humans have taken up residence and fires have been excluded for a hundred years.
      This would make as much sense as stopping all vaccines since the natural selection process would weed out those not capable of surviving a disease and we are weakening our immune systems by the use of vaccines, although my guess is the two trains of thought probably are held by the same people.

  5. Well it would appear that for the time being the Global Supertanker will be in the air. An interesting article and comment regarding the contracting is on “Colorado Public Radio News”. Not sure how to link the story to here.

  6. Did anyone else see the irony of naming this plane the “Spirit of John Muir” when the John Muir Project is fighting for more fire?


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