The 2017 fire season is in full swing here in the United States and it has been a busy one with total acres burned running about two million acres above the ten year national average. The activity has been spread over all geographical areas with the states of Montana and Nevada being hit really hard. As I write this in early August from South Idaho numerous firefighting aircraft are grounded due to the dense smoke created by the numerous fires. On the previous day the skies over the Snake River Plains contained twenty- two Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs), eight heavy air tankers, and one Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) working three fires. There were also an uncounted number of helicopters sharing the airspace. So far the entire season has seen days like yesterday and there is no relief in site from the hot dry weather.
As the fire season approached in early May the prospect for an Exclusive Use SEAT Contract became completely unraveled leaving contractors and flight crews wondering whether they would work or not. All SEATs would be going out under the On Call Contract at a much greater cost to the government and in turn the American taxpayer. As the resource orders started going out in early season it became apparent that the government was selecting solely by bid price. This meant that the dozens of aircraft that had been prepositioned had no guarantees that they would get work. Some had been out for weeks in hopes of being put on contract. In the end many pilots and drivers gave up and moved on to find another way to make a living. When the fires did start it left numerous aircraft sitting idle for lack of a crew. It will be interesting to see how the Department of Interior goes about rectifying the problems this winter.
As the era of aircraft chasing fires across district or state lines broadens, flight crews often land at pumpkin time hundreds of miles from home base without a reservation for a room to sleep in. Across the West hotel rooms are increasingly getting harder to secure during fire season which coincides with summer vacation. More than once this year I have found myself flying all day and not getting into a room until after midnight. In my opinion it should be the job of dispatch that when it becomes apparent that a crew is going to overnight to secure lodging for them. We certainly cannot do it from the cockpit.
The pilot shortage that is ongoing is not just within the SEAT world. In visiting with several heavy crews I found out that they are experiencing the same problems. It is frightening when you look around at the age of the majority of pilots and realize we are a bunch of old farts. It is disheartening to spend time and money getting them carded only to have them jump to the side where the grass appears greener. I was brought up believing that loyalty was an asset. It doesn’t seem to be that way anymore.
As busy as the season has been it is often easy to let you guard down and lose the edge. Keep it sharp, safe, and prosperous and I hope to see you in the mountains one day.