Is aerial firefighting worth it?

Aerial firefighting is dangerous, expensive and environmentally damaging. So why do we do it?

  • A DC-10 very large air tanker drops fire retardant above Greer, Arizona.

    Jayson Coil (www.jaysoncoil.com)/Courtesy U.S. Forest Service; Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest
 

When large wildfires blaze, the public counts on airplanes to put them out. Pilots fly air tankers over mountainous terrain and drop fire retardant — up to nearly 12,000 gallons per trip — onto the dense forests below. The bursts of red slurry bring hope to those whose homes are imperiled. Politicians and the media thrill at the sight and clamor for more. But is it safe? And is it effective enough to justify the high costs?

The U.S. Forest Service, which saw its large air tanker fleet shrink to just nine planes in 2012, has 20 air tankers on exclusive-use and call-when-needed contracts for the 2015 season, plus one under Forest Service operation. Spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said the agency is working to bring up to 28 air tankers into service. Last May, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper approved a $21 million budget for the state to develop its own aerial firefighting fleet of helicopters, spotter planes and small retardant-dropping air tankers. California, currently the only state to have its own firefighting fleet, has 22 air tankers, 12 helicopters and 14 air tactical planes.

But unpredictable atmospheric conditions make flying over wildfires difficult and dangerous. Thirty-seven firefighters have died in aerial firefighting accidents in the last decade. If similar casualty rates prevailed on the ground, the Forest Service found, more than 200 ground firefighters would die every year. And the slurry, which is rich in nitrogen, can harm fish, wildlife and watersheds, despite agency guidelines to prevent drops onto vulnerable areas.

Aerial firefighting is expensive. Tankers cost upwards of $6,000 per hour to operate. The slurry itself averages about $2 per gallon, and the Forest Service used almost 9 million gallons of it last year. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell recently predicted that high fire-suppression costs for the 2015 season will divert funds from other important agency programs.

Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, has criticized aerial firefighting. “They must have a lot of money to spend — to waste,” he says of Colorado’s air corps budget. Stahl claims that fighting fire from the air is not only expensive, dangerous and environmentally harmful, but that it has yet to be proven to work.

Forest Service experiments have demonstrated that retardants can reduce fire intensity and spread up to twice as effectively as water. But in 2011, Stahl’s group did a correlational study using Forest Service data that found retardant use had no effect on wildfire size or initial attack success rates. (Jones said a new study hopes to address the data deficit, but data collection will need to continue for several more years.)

Once a big fire is burning, there’s no time to pause and debate issues of effectiveness or cost, however. “If a house burns down and you failed to use a 747 that could dump dollar-a-gallon fancy fertilizer water because you didn’t think it would make any difference, you shouldn’t be fighting fires,” Stahl says. “You will get clobbered politically when that house burns.”

Return to:

As wildfires get bigger, is there any way to be ready?
High Country News Classifieds
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.