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New Study Says Retardant Dropping Air Tankers Out, Water Scooper Planes In


A new study released by the RAND Corporation, a non partisan think tank, says the U.S. Forest Service should move away from retardant dropping heavy air tankers as a primary aerial firefighting tool to more cost effective ‘scooper planes’ that drop water.

Commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service, RAND was tasked with creating a plan to replenish the aging civilian air tanker fleet. Many of the planes currently flying missions across the U.S. are from the Cold War area and nearing the end of their usable life.

According to the report, RAND believes an ‘initial attack fleet' [.pdf] should be made up primarily of water dropping scooper planes and as few as 5 heavy air tankers with an additional mix of water dropping helicopters.

An Example of a Scooper Plane


This marks a departure from the current thinking of the U.S. Forest Service. And, as The Washington Post reports, U.S. Forest Chief Tom Tidewell is not keen on the findings of the report.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell says he agrees with many recommendations in the long-awaited report released Monday by the RAND Corp., but not that one. “We disagree with that because we feel some of the information they used is inaccurate,” Tidwell told The Associated Press.

The Forest Service has been under pressure in recent months to update its aging fleet. That pressure increased as multiple fires burned across the western U.S. including the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires. The civilian fleet was taxed to such a degree; the military was tapped to help fight the fires with specially equipped C-130s.

In response, Congress passed a bill speeding up the contracting process for new civilian air tankers allowing the Forest Service to contract the scooper planes. However, the Denver Post reports officials believe heavy air tankers are the best plane for fighting western wildfires.

A plan announced to Congress would add 18 to 28 new tankers as well as water-bearing helicopters and two scoopers. "Our 50-year history has shown us that, while there's a time and place for water — and we drop a lot of it — that for our large air tankers, retardant is the way to go. You can build the line with the retardant. It has residual, positive benefits for firefighters even when the water has evaporated. In the arid West, it is just a better buy for us," said Tom Harbour, the Forest Service's director of fire and aviation management.

In a statement released Monday, the RAND Corporation says the cost of battling wildfires has steadily increased with an average $1.65 billion spent a year on wildfire suppression. The corporation says phasing out heavy air tankers in favor of water dropping scooper planes is not only cheaper, but also cost effective and environmentally friendly.

Historically, the Forest Service's fleet of large firefighting aircraft has been composed primarily of air tankers and helicopters. Air tankers primarily carry fire retardant, which has advantages over water, but is also much more costly. There also are environmental concerns about the retardant. The key advantage of air tankers is their ability to support firefighting operations that may be far from the water sources needed by scoopers and helicopters. Scoopers can be used in areas where there is ready access to large bodies of water. Although current models cannot carry loads as large as air tankers, scoopers can cycle back and forth between bodies of water and a fire, making multiple drops an hour. This compares to about 1.5 drops per hour for an air tanker, which must fly back to a runway and load more retardant before returning to the fire.

Comprehensive reporting on the RAND study has been done by Bill Gabbert of Wildfiretoday.com. Gabbert says the report, commissioned for $840,000, is the fifth air tanker study completed since 1996.

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