The Aerial Firefighting Industry: A Voice in the Wilderness

In January 2022, a critical U.S. federal government action relative to the wildfire crisis was announced amidst great fanfare, with multiple agencies joining a public relations blitz demonstrating that the feds were taking a bold step.  A ten-year strategic plan for mitigating the wildfire crisis was released, entitled “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests.”  Like many fellow firefighters and aerial firefighting industry executives, at first glance, I applauded the mere fact that the 2020-2021 historic wildfires had prompted something as forward-looking as a ten-year plan.

I immediately read the numerous documents detailing the plan.  While there were important recommendations relative to the core causes of the worsening wildfire crisis, such as reversing climate change and the need for dramatic land management reforms, something was missing.  What was missing, was any reference to fire suppression, on the ground or in the air, both of which are paramount to buying time as climate and land-related actions require decades before real progress can be made.  More specific to our industry, nowhere in the many pages of the plan, is there a single mention of “aerial firefighting” or “aerial suppression,” or a single word indicating that our industry even exists.

Not surprisingly, my inbox began to fill up with messages from like-minded colleagues in our industry who had spotted the same mind-boggling red flag.  One such note said it best – “this is like the Department of Defense publishing a strategic plan that is entirely focused on the causes of military conflict, and suggesting that more diplomacy and dialogue with our enemies can solve the problem.  That line of thinking blindly neglects the need for warfighters and the weapons they’ll need to fight back when, inevitably, we’ll be attacked.”

Obviously, this hypothetical would never occur, and the strategic plans coming out of the Pentagon consistently recognize the need for weapons of war.  Further, defense planners rarely neglect to note the close strategic collaboration between industry and government, as far more than just a buyer/seller relationship.  You won’t find a long-term, comprehensive strategic defense plan that fails to include heavy reference to the industry they work hard to protect and nurture – “the defense industrial base.”

Now, for those outside of our industry who might reject the premise I’ve outlined, saying it’s apples to oranges, I’d offer these thoughts.  Yes, Defense is responsible for the nation’s national security posture, they fight the global war on terror, and mitigate threats from rogue nations posing real risks.  And, yes, the defense industry is massive.  However, the notion that wildfires are merely an environmental threat, posing seasonal risks to our national forests and “treasured national resources” is a dangerous legacy misperception.

Our industry mitigates the fast-growing economic risk posed by wildland fires, and economic security goes hand-in-hand with national security.  According to economists, wildfires cost all Americans by negatively impacting our GDP by over $250,000,000,000 annually.  Our industry saves lives every day of the year somewhere in the world.  We protect whole communities and critical infrastructure that would otherwise be burned to the ground, not just trees and parks, but energy, the watershed, transportation, agriculture, etc.  The aerial firefighting industry may pale in size to others that protect the homeland, such as the defense industry, but we punch way above our weight in the context of threats mitigated and the cost to taxpayers.

It’s possible that in early 2022 our industry will witness another example of the disconnected, non-strategic relationship with government customers, and their long-term plans for aerial firefighting.  A provision within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law by President Biden on November 15, 2021, establishes the creation of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission.  Among the requirements placed upon this Commission by Congress is a comprehensive assessment of current and future aerial firefighting assets and technologies.  It remains to be seen whether our industry will have even one seat at the Commission table, a group whose findings and actions will undoubtedly impact the future of our companies.

So why does our industry have such a limited, if not non-existent, strategic relationship with our government customers, in the U.S. and around the globe?  What are the causes of this narrow, transactional, short-term relationship, in which, essentially, proposals are requested, the industry sends responses, and contracts are awarded?  Why do we operate under customer procurement practices involving, for example, extremely short-duration contracts, and contract revisions lacking adequate funding to make the revisions?  How can our companies justify self-funded investment in research, development, testing, and evaluation of new aircraft platforms, or enhancements to existing ones, when government-funded RDT&E is almost non-existent?

There’s plenty of blame to go around in answering these and related questions.  Certainly some elected and appointed officials throughout the world have failed our industry on many levels.  But, I would submit that a great deal of the blame falls squarely on our own shoulders, we the industry.  Why is that?  Because over the past two decades, we’ve knowingly succumbed to our government customers’ unwillingness to take the reins and lead efforts to reform the relationship.  We have debts, investors, aging fleets requiring upgrades, employees needing to stay employed, and an array of other short-term priorities.  The result?  Hanging on by a thread, our companies have lost sight of the power to drive real reform that is made possible when individual companies join forces.

More to the point, we are the only industry on the front lines of protecting America’s economic and national security that does not have an established, credible and influential industry trade organization.  Trade groups are not just an American phenomenon.  Throughout the world, companies that compete with each other in the same market every day, manage to find common ground and shared challenges, and recognize that by joining forces to act as one voice they can achieve goals that would otherwise not be met.  For companies selling to government customers, well-positioned trade groups are a force multiplier that signals to the customer a cohesive, aligned, and expert voice.  A voice that, if ignored on what is said to be an industry-wide problem that could ultimately threaten public safety or increase the taxpayer burden, is best not ignored.

The low-hanging benefits of an aerial firefighting industry group are obvious and achievable.  While individual companies must continue to engage government customers and policymakers on company-specific priorities, those efforts would be backed in many cases by industry-wide validation.  An industry-wide drumbeat that, for example, assures that the development of a ten-year wildfire strategy must include suppression elements, including aerial.  A drumbeat of ongoing engagement that assures a new Commission charged with assessing current aerial capabilities and future needs includes industry personnel having a seat at the table.

The logistics of establishing an aerial firefighting trade group is not the biggest challenge our companies face.  There are dozens of trade group operating models, benchmarks, and methods for standing up an organization such as this. Having floated the concept over the past year to professionals in the trade association and policy world, I’ve learned it’s a process that can if the industry has the will, be accomplished in months, not years.

The real challenge that must precede standing up a group like this involves several critical steps.  First, the industry must rally around a core, foundational point of agreement – no single aircraft platform should be positioned as the standalone, silver bullet aerial suppression solution that best supports firefighters on the ground.  An aerial firefighting industry group that, at the individual company level, is promoting a one-size-fits-all type of fires/conditions message would quickly be marginalized.  Failure to communicate a shared message of “every fire, every mission, every environment has its unique aerial requirements” is nothing more than cannibalizing at the expense of the broader industry’s health,  and taking five steps backward.  Steps that have and will surely continue to marginalize and weaken individual companies’ health over time, and assure that our industry as a whole remains a voice in the wilderness.

Dan Reese
Dan Reese
Dan Reese is a CAL FIRE veteran having served 20 years in the agency. Dan then went on to become the CEO of Global Super Tanker and now heads International Wilfire Consulting Group.

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