Change in the Air: Rethinking old strategies to win a new wildfire war
Today, U.S. wildfires burn on average more than three times the number of acres per fire than just a few decades ago. The increasing size and intensity has caused suppression and recovery costs to dramatically increase, culminating last year when the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) spent more money battling wildfires than it ever has – $2.4 billion. That’s a shocking amount of money. But even more shocking is the fact that in the coming years the wildfire threat is forecasted to only grow.
Climate scientists with the U.S. and Canadian Forest Services and University of Idaho estimate that by mid-century western parts of the U.S. could see up to a six-fold increase in the number of weeks during which weather conditions are favorable for very large fires (>5,000 hectares). This type of development isn’t new; already, wildfire seasons are 78 days longer than they were four decades ago.
The complexity and cost involved in battling larger wildfires is further compounded by the growing numbers of Americans establishing homes and businesses in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Increasing development in the WUI requires more firefighting assets to protect widely dispersed people and property, which in turn drives up suppression costs.
In 10 of the last 13 years, wildfire suppression costs have greatly exceeded the overall USFS fire management budget. Each time this happens, the agency takes funding from forest health programs to pay its suppression bill—a budgetary practice called fire borrowing. Years of unintended fire borrowing has resulted in unhealthy landscapes flush with overgrown thickets that act as quick burning fuel for wildfires. As fires burn larger and suppression costs increase, we risk a parallel jump in the rate of fire borrowing, limiting funding for fuel removal tactics like prescribed burns and forest thinning, therefore perpetuating the decline of our national wildlands.
Breaking or slowing this cycle will require more than a temporary budget fix like the 2018 legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. To truly rein in costs and protect forest health, we need more cost-effective wildfire response strategies that reliably contain small fires in the WUI before they escape and become larger, costlier disasters. By doing this, we put an end to fire borrowing and better safeguard funding for fuel removal tactics that reduce the threat of large fires not just for a single season but well into the future.
Each time a small wildfire is suppressed during initial response, agencies prevent greater devastation and millions more in associated costs. In fact, a USDA Audit Report found that when success rate of USFS initial response dropped by 1.5% in 2007, it represented ~150 more fires that escaped containment and cost $300 million to $450 million to suppress. By avoiding decreases like this and improving initial response, USFS could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in savings (and given that this Audit Report took place more than 10 years ago, these potential savings would be even higher today).
However, the reality is that many aerial firefighting models are not optimized for initial response. Instead, firefighting aircraft are more often deployed when a fire has already escaped containment and grown into a larger, more expensive disaster. When this happens, typically large and very large air tankers (LATs and VLATs) conduct an indirect attack, dropping numerous loads of retardant around a fire to box in the threat. Turnaround time between drops often exceeds one to two hours due to procedures required for loading high volumes of retardants. Turnaround time may also be impacted by basing requirements, as large aircraft must operate out of large airports as opposed to smaller, regional bases typically closer to the WUI. As with all aircraft, turnaround time contributes to the overall length of a wildfire mission, which in turn increases aircraft operating costs.
When a small fire does break initial containment, LATs/VLATs play a critical suppression role, but at a high cost. Significant acquisition, retrofitting and on-going maintenance costs naturally limit the number of LATs/VLATs that are available for fire suppression. With at best a small number of large aircraft operating from limited bases, LATs/VLATs cannot be as widely distributed across a fire-prone region as smaller aircraft. Given the broadening geographic areas requiring potential fire suppression, and the limited number of LATs/VLATs, there is simply too much ground to cover to ensure rapid initial response. This structural challenge plus high costs makes LATs/VLATs primarily suited for indirect attack on large fires.
While indirect attack will continue to play an important role in fighting big blazes, agencies must bolster rapid and direct initial air attack capability to quickly respond to and contain fire starts in the WUI when they are still small. Otherwise, small wildfires will increasingly become large disasters that require many millions of dollars to suppress.
To transform aerial firefighting for today’s environment, numerous forward-attack aircraft, like the Air Tractor AT-802F Fire Boss, are needed for their ability to be widely based across a fire-prone region, putting them closer to potential fire starts in the WUI. This proximity, plus their swift takeoff capability, allows Fire Bosses to quickly arrive at a scene where they nimbly maneuver a fire’s frontline, dropping continuous loads of water, foam, gel or retardant. These aircraft can rapidly reload in between drops, returning to small, regional airports or scooping directly from a nearby water source. Given that at least two-thirds of historical fires in the U.S. have been within ten miles of a scooper-accessible water source, there is undeniable value in using a network of Fire Bosses to improve the effectiveness of initial response, resulting in shorter, less costly aerial suppression missions. By using this strategy, we can better avoid large, multi-million-dollar wildfires, reduce the need for fire borrowing and return critical funds to forest health management programs that can help reduce the threat of megafire for years to come.
Given these challenges, we recently made a series of advances to better prepare our company to make a lasting difference. We rebranded from Aero Spray to Dauntless Air to reflect our focus on aerial firefighting and our resolute commitment to protect people, land and property from the devastation of wildfires. As the owner of the country’s largest and most advanced Fire Boss fleet, we brought on new aircraft and ground support vehicles and reinforced our foundation as a growing business by deploying new administrative and technology support systems that will drive next-level efficiency and excellence.
The sum of these changes moves us closer to achieving our vision of winning the war against wildfires. At Dauntless, we believe this vision is obtainable, but only if our country is willing to rethink traditional approaches and embrace modern aerial firefighting strategies that focus on rapidly and reliably knocking down small fires in the WUI during initial response.
Dauntless Air is an aerial firefighting company deeply dedicated to protecting people, land and property from the devastation of wildfires. Learn more about us and download our vision paper “Transforming Aerial Firefighting for a Changing Environment” at www.dauntlessair.com.