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
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • ENDANGERED SPECIES STAFF SCIENTIST
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a staff scientist to advocate for the conservation of endangered species. General position overview: The position will involve working...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PROGRAM
    The Center for Biological Diversity - a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of imperiled plants, animals and wild places - seeks a dynamic...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Staff Attorney to join our team of attorneys, scientists, campaigners who are working to protect America's public lands...
  • SOUTHWEST CONSERVATION ADVOCATE
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Southwest Conservation Advocate to join our team of attorneys, scientists and campaigners who are working to protect America's...
  • OCEANS PROGRAM CAMPAIGNER
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks an experienced campaigner for its oceans program. The aim of the position is to campaign for the protection of...
  • CLIMATE LAW INSTITUTE ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute is looking to add an attorney to its team and will consider applicants at both staff attorney...
  • FULL-TIME CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a full-time Campaign Director in our Climate Law Institute to join our campaign for progressive, urgent government action to...
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIVE
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...