Wildfire SOS

How the Federal Government Can Reduce the Burden on American Taxpayers of the Escalating Wildfire Crisis 

Each year from 2021—2030, in the months from May—December, a national crisis will take place. A situation we can predict just as we predict daily weather patterns or identify and prepare for hurricanes, blizzards, floods, and other natural disasters. The U.S. wildfire predictions for the coming decade can be made today, and it is a given. The mid-twentieth-century notion of a short summer “wildfire season” is a thing of the past.

While winter snowfall, spring rains, autumn winds, and other factors will influence the ultimate degree of damage, massive damage running into the tens of billions of dollars annually is a certainty. Thousands of wildfires will ignite in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, California, and other western states.

The initial reaction to annual wildfires is also predictable and visible every year. Elected and appointed state leaders, expert wildland firefighters, emergency management officials, and fire incident commanders in each state scramble to contain small fires that threaten to become massive “mega” or “giga” fires sure to destroy tens of thousands of acres of forested areas and threaten populated adjacent regions.

Massive crises will take lives, destroy businesses, wreak havoc on the economy, devour funds in federal and state coffers, drive up taxes paid by all Americans, and burn millions of acres.

Vision of 2021 “Wildfire SOS” (Support Our States) Legislation 

Only three things can stop small fires from becoming mega-disasters. It rains heavily and perfectly timed to dampen fires already ignited. Or, the fires happen to burn fast and furious in a finite set of terrain, given wind direction, etc., until all possible fuel (trees, grasses, etc.) is consumed before the fire leaps into adjacent forested or urban areas.

Or the fire is controlled/contained and extinguished by human intervention – ground and air-based attack. Scenarios one and two depending on Mother Nature amidst a global environment that is undeniably warmer and dryer. Scenario three is the only practical solution that leaders with vision and a sense of urgency concerning the wildfire threat can act upon in the near term.

Most states cannot afford to maintain, own/lease, and operate adequate aerial fleets. The cost and expertise involved in having the aerial assets standing by, certified, safe, and ready to fly is outside most states’ budget and technical bandwidth (California being the exception). Due to the economy of scale and the cost of operations, it is difficult for the air tanker contractor and a state to enter into economically feasible agreements.

Following are the basic, credible facts behind 2021’s proposed “Wildfire SOS” legislation. An actionable proposal would save taxpayers billions of dollars annually for minimal cost.

Why “Wildfire SOS” Legislation 

Wildfires are burning faster, hotter, and longer due to climate deviations and land and environmental management practices that fuel the fires. While policymakers and those responsible for managing state and federal forests and wildlands continue to seek solutions to these two core causes of today’s mega

and giga wildfires (burning >100,000 acres), it’s not just the USFS but the entire country, regardless of jurisdiction, that needs immediate measures to mitigate this threat to our infrastructure, economy, and the lives of those citizens in the line of fire.

Modern fixed-wing aerial firefighting is a proven, critical component to contain and control fires before they explode into massive catastrophes. A 2020 study by George Mason University that analyzed over 350,000 lines of U.S. Forest Service wildfire and aerial attack data proved unequivocally that “rapid initial attack” by the air dramatically curtailed the duration of wildfires. Duration has a direct correlation to the eventual cost of fires.

According to the Congressional Research Service, approximately 50% of wildfires in America occur on federally-owned lands, and over half ignite on state and locally-owned lands. And, in many cases, fires leap from one jurisdiction to another. This parity of land ownership and wildfire locations is in no way reflected in the availability of aerial firefighting assets. In summary, the states, especially those western states at the epicenter of the wildfire threat, could, given the immediate availability of large and very large air tankers, dramatically mitigate the threat and the eventual cost of wildfires that impacts all Americans regardless of where they live.

Five Irrefutable Facts Supporting the “Wildfire SOS” Legislative Proposal 

1. The United States Forest Service already has an air tanker aviation management program consisting of large and very large air tankers for the protection of Federal lands. This program includes exclusive use (EU) contracted aircraft and call-when-needed (CWN) aircraft, which states may use but are either unavailable or/or not requested due to cost incurred when used. The current CWN contracts involve $0 cost to the American taxpayer until the aircraft are deployed on urgent firefighting missions, in which case the National Fire Fix funding kicks in. CWN is a contracting method that significantly benefits the government/taxpayer – no risk/cost unless the aircraft is deployed; however, this benefit has destabilized the industry, compromised surge capacity, precluded investment opportunity, and limited innovation.

2. As evidenced by USFS data in eleven out of the past twelve years, every available CWN air tanker, including multiple deployments of the Military C-130 National Guard air tankers (MAFFS), the USFS struggles to meet the demand for fires on federal lands. Not unlike most years, in addition to the currently contracted EU aircraft, 100% of CWN contracted large and very large air tankers and;

3. The USFS used MAFFS in 2020. Many States and Federal Agencies were requesting aircraft, where orders were sent back unable to fill (UTF). 3. It is difficult for the industry to build a business plan involving aviation’s significant capital investments on the CWM model. Pilot recruitment, sustainment, and development of new technology to increase efficiency and effectiveness are lacking due to the inability to plan using a fleet of 50% CWN. If the current federal CWN air tanker fleet were allotted exclusive use contracts in support of and assigned to states for use, three things would occur:

  • It would provide stability to the industry. Currently, vendors can only guess and gamble on how much employment the next fire season will bring, where the resulting increased costs are passed on to taxpayers due to the exorbitant use of the CWN fleet.
  • States would now have guaranteed access to air tankers where rapid initial and sustained attacks of wildfires could be realized.
  • If planning and potential income are created based on known demand, the air tanker industry would undoubtedly respond by seeking additional aircraft under a federal CWN contract, where an appropriate surge capacity will be realized.

4. It is important to know that all Americans pay for wildfires and the damage they cause, just as they do for other national disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. During these national disasters, States often engage in Federal Management Assistance Grants (FMAG), where the Federal Government and all taxpayers bare the lion’s share of the cost. If wildfires were to be mitigated quickly through aggressive sustained rapid initial attacks before they become a disaster by utilizing air tankers, the number of FMAGs would be significantly reduced. To be successful, states would need immediate access to air tankers for initial attack; this would only be possible if the air tanker was available for initial response and a federal grant covered the initial cost. Once again, substantiated by the only existing air tanker use study produced to date through George Mason University. The capture of just one major fire incident that, on average, costs the American taxpayer tens of millions of dollars in suppression, recovery, life, and property would justify such a bill.

5. The cost of managing and contracting large air tankers is exorbitant and necessitates a specialized skill set. Federal agencies have recognized this and have funneled this responsibility to just one agency, the United States Forest Service, for use by all Federal agencies. By doing so, the Federal Agencies have engaged in the economy of scale. Any agency using a Federally contracted aircraft assumes the operational liability of that aircraft. By having the aircraft meet all Federal contracting standards, there is undeniable oversight for the safe operational use of the aircraft. This same thing cannot be said of most state agencies due to the complexity and cost of oversight. This is why Federal Agencies often do not allow state-only certified aircraft to engage in Federal fires unless there is a life threat. California is one of the single states where state certification is accepted in some, but not all, instances.

6. An appropriately staffed air tanker program across the United States and appropriately staffed hand crews are the two single human-managed systems that may be employed today that will dramatically affect fire. The demise of these two components is the root cause of many of the world’s wildfires escaping control only to become mega-fires. Aviation and ground resources may be successful by themselves. However, the appropriate combination of employing both resources simultaneously when needed potentiates each resource’s effectiveness.

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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