Demand Is Rising For 'Fire Bombers,' But It's Unclear If They Really Work

Aug 22, 2018

With wildfires burning through much of the West, there’s high demand for big aircraft to come in and battle the flames from above.

As the Washington Post reported, “The number of federally contracted airtankers is down 70 percent since 2000, with just 13 now working through exclusive use agreements with the U.S. Forest Service. Helicopter support also has fallen significantly, with the agency unable to fill more than half the requests it received last year.

Earlier this summer Coloradans wondered why a fire bomber called the Spirit of John Muir was sent to California instead of battling flames in its home state.

But some of the enthusiasm for such aircraft might be misplaced.

Timothy Ingalsbee used to be a wildland firefighter and is now executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, a national group dedicated to ecological fire management. He says there are a lot of misconceptions around what big aircraft can actually accomplish during a wildfire.

For one, there’s the red liquid they drop.

“Many people think that retardant is dropped on flames and it extinguishes fires and that's not what they do,” he says. “This is fire retardant. It slows down the rate of spread.”

Ingalsbee says the idea is to bide time so firefighters can come in and do the grunt work. But instead, Forest Service research shows that airtankers are often sent to drop fire retardant on active flames during the hottest part of the day and in difficult areas that firefighters can’t access.

“They're being used in times, places and conditions where aerial retardant is least effective or ineffective. It makes a great show on television but it's practically useless and very expensive,” he says.

Michael Kodas encountered the same sentiment while researching his book, “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame."

“I spoke with a number of Forest Service employees -- some of them actually the people who managed aircraft on wildfires -- and they were pretty blunt about the fact that the air war on wildfires was not nearly as effective as people thought it was,” he says. “One of them actually gave me this great quote: ‘It's like trying to put out wildfires by dumping dollars on them.’”

Kodas says there’s now a shift away from using retrofitted surplus military aircraft – some of which fell apart while flying over Colorado fires in 2002 – toward specially designed private aircraft.

“The big symbol of that really is the supertanker,” says Kodas.

He’s referring to the Spirit of John Muir, a retrofitted 747 owned by a company called Global Supertanker Services. It can carry 19,000 gallons of flame retardant.

“That's a really expensive aircraft to have in the air dealing with wildfires, particularly when we don't have a lot of data to show that aircraft fighting wildfires is particularly effective,” he says.

The Forest Service has recognized that lack of data and is now working to fill some of the gaps on how best to use airtankers. The agency expects the demand for such aircraft to increase as wildfires get bigger and more intense.

Last week a Utah firefighter died fighting fires in California after an airtanker drop caused tree debris to fall on him. Three others were injured. Forest Service research has found that between 2000 and 2012, large airtankers accounted for 17 percent of wildland firefighter fatalities.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.