Aerial Firefighting Operators Form New Association
Aerial firefighting operators have formed a new association to better represent their role in combatting wildfires, which cost the U.S. government $2.5 billion annually to suppress.
“It’s probably long past due that this organization start,” says John Gould, inaugural president of the United Aerial Firefighters Association (UAFA). “The wildfire aviation business is a pretty big part of wildfire in the U.S.—that’s a two-and-a-half to $3 billion-a-year business.”
Gould is the president and CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, of Albuquerque. Other founding members of the association are Bridger Aerospace, of Bozeman, Montana; Dauntless Air, of Appleton, Minnesota; Firehawk Helicopters, of Boise and Leesburg, Florida; and Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Montana. They operate a variety of firefighting airplanes and helicopters, ranging in size from Dauntless’s Air Tractor AT-802F Fire Bosses to 10 Tankers’ McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 air tankers.
“We don’t really feel like we have a seat at the table when it comes to talking about changes that could be made or initiatives that could be put forth to make us more standardized [and] safer,” Gould tells BCA. “A lot of what is going on in our industry is a relic of how it’s always been in this industry.”
“Rough-hewn individuals” accustomed to doing things their own way gave the industry its start, Gould says, but aerial firefighting companies face an evolving wildfire threat that has drawn renewed attention from Congress. While wildfires have decreased in number in recent decades, they have grown in size and intensity.
“Every aerial firefighting operator is facing similar challenges, and we all see the writing on the wall: If the nation’s aviation management strategies don’t change, we will be unable to meet future demand,” says Dauntless Air CEO Brett L’Esperance, secretary/treasurer of the new association. “By uniting as the UAFA, we can provide a strong and coordinated voice for the entire aerial firefighting community and help create a strategy that reduces risk and health implications to our citizens in fire-prone states.”
Acreage Burned By Wildfires Increases
Average annual acreage burned by wildfires in the U.S. has increased over the past 30 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). On average, about eight million acres burned each year in wildfires between 2017-21, more than double the average amount from 1987-91. At the same time, there were nearly 59,000 wildfires in 2021, fewer than the 76,000 that occurred in 1991, the congressional agency states in a June 2022 “Wildfires” report.
The CBO attributes the extent of wildfires to legacy forest-management practices that have allowed the vegetation that fuels fires to grow denser, the impact of climate change creating hotter, drier conditions more conducive to wildfires, and the expansion of urban areas. Average annual federal spending on fire suppression was $2.5 billion between 2016-20, it says.
“The agencies like to point to the fact that there’s an increased amount of fuel on the ground out there, but there’s no denying that climate change has a lot to do with it,” says Gould, a veteran former ground firefighter and smokejumper. “What does that mean for us as an aviation company—we drop retardant on fires and the trend is definitely up and to the right. Not year-over-year; 2019 was a slow year [and] last year was kind of an average year, but every year we expect that we’re probably going to drop more retardant and fly more hours than we ever have before.”
There was an average of 60,000 wildfires each year from 2017-21, about one-fifth of which occurred on federal lands, with the balance on lands owned by state and local governments and the private sector, the CBO says. Though fewer in number, federal fires typically affect a larger area than other wildfires; their average size from 1991 to 2021 was more than five times that of fires on nonfederal lands.
Federal Contract Reform
Federal contracting reform is an early focus of the UAFA. The association would like to see contract lengths extended, with more assurance and predictability of contract awards—goals that member companies believe they are more likely to achieve by presenting a united front.
There can be 30-to-40 large air tankers deployed in a year, about 75% of which are federally contracted aircraft, Gould estimates. Large state agencies like the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which operates Grumman S-2T air tankers, can bring their own resources to bear on state lands, but they represent a smaller part of the fleet. “Where the federal government goes with contracting, there goes the industry,” Gould says.
The $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill that President Joe Biden signed into law in November 2021 created a Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission charged with making recommendations to improve federal wildland fire policies. The commission produced an “Aerial Equipment Strategy Report” in January 2023 that studied federal contracting and appropriations for wildland firefighting among other areas. It found that current agency budget structures and contracting constraints “have incentivized the use of contracts that are seasonal, shorter term, and, while incorporating best value considerations, ultimately favor short-term budget expediency over long-term value.”
The commission recommended that the contracting process “should meet operational demands, including the option of reliable longer-term contracts … and every effort should be made to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the contracting process.”
Ultimately the commission—which will release a more comprehensive report in September—was unable to establish a total requirement for aviation assets through 2030, one of the objectives of the strategy report.
“The Commission found that the current wildland fire aviation strategy is based on a seasonal model, yet fire seasons are now longer, overlap geographically in ways they previously did not, and indeed, may be full fire years,” the report states. “As wildfire seasons increase in duration and intensity, and as the need for proactive risk reduction treatments increases, there is a compelling need to reexamine existing approaches to aviation fleet procurement, use, composition and quantity.”
Still in its infancy, the UAFA is mounting a membership drive and will exhibit for the first time at the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Conference and Exhibition, April 3-4 in Seattle.
“We see tremendous changes coming in the industry because of the size and intensity of fires today,” says Gould. “We’d like to be at the table when we see these changes that we know are beginning to happen.”