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
  • SENIOR ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking a Senior Environmental Planner to lead the Nature in the City team. This interdisciplinary position is housed in...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) is seeking a dynamic community engagement assistant. The individual will work to identify and empower members, supporters, volunteers, and others...
  • VOICES OF WISDOM 2019 SOUTHWEST
    May 25 & 26 At the bank of the Colorado River, at Riverbend Park in Palisade, Colorado, the Sacred Fire Community in the Grand Valley...
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney