Air tankers often ineffective in fighting wildfires

Posted: Updated:
The price for large air tankers can run as high as $13,299 per hour. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) The price for large air tankers can run as high as $13,299 per hour. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

A growing number of studies and critics are casting doubt on the effectiveness of air tankers in fighting wildfires. The criticism is not that the aircraft are ineffective when used in the right circumstances. The problem is they are called upon too often and in too many situations.

"Aircraft is a tool. And you want to match the tool to the job," said Steve Pyne, who is a fire historian, and one of several experts who spoke to CBS 5 Investigates for this report.

Pyne says it has become expected that fire managers call for air tankers in every large wildfire, regardless of the actual need.

"I think the public believes that they are essential and if they don't see them, there's something wrong with the response," said Pyne.

Studies conducted over the past decade have highlighted the cost versus reward versus the risk of using aircraft to drop water and retardant on wildfires. The conclusions have surprised the public as well as politicians.

A University of Oregon study showed from 2004 to 2008, the U.S. Forest Service spent $339 -million on flying contracts. That was 16 percent of the firefighting budget. Other estimates put air contracts at one-third of the firefighting budget.

The price for large air tankers can run as high as $13,299 per hour.

Forest managers who spoke to CBS 5 Investigates said aircraft are invaluable when used as "eyes in the sky," and that air tankers are most effective when used during the initial attack against a fire. That is, they are most effective when the fire is still small, in that they can keep it in check until ground crews arrive on the scene. But once a fire reaches a certain size, makes it into dense forest, or burns through steep mountainous terrain, air attack becomes much less effective.

But a study published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire concluded that "extended attack and large fire support currently comprise the majority of air tanker use, reflecting an apparent disconnect between intentions and actual practice."

The study found that roughly half the time, air tankers were used outside of their effective window. That means they had little or no effect on fire suppression.

Fire managers who spoke to CBS 5 Investigates say the pressure to continue using the aircraft often comes from the public and politicians, who believe they need to show their constituents they are bringing in every available resource to save communities from the ravages of wildfire.

"The public has certainly grown to expect it and the agency now believes the public expects it and they're reluctant to deny that or else face the charge they are not being aggressive," said Pyne.

The extra use of aircraft isn't just expensive. It is also dangerous. According to a CDC report, a quarter of wildland firefighter deaths between 2000 and 2013 were aviators.

The number of air tankers in use in the United States dropped significantly after 2002, when two aircraft crashed while fighting fires. At the time, the majority of the air tanker fleet consisted of older planes, which were exempted from normal flight worthiness certifications. That exemption was rescinded.

Now, the Forest Service is studying plans to create a new fleet, while independent contractors have stepped in with some newer aircraft. But policymakers are debating how many large tankers to use, compared to smaller aircraft and helicopters. And some experts say they'd rather see some of the aircraft money spent on other fire suppression equipment and on upkeep for the forests themselves.

Click/tap here to download the free azfamily mobile app.

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

Morgan  LoewMorgan Loew is an investigative reporter at CBS 5 News. His career has taken him to every corner of the state, lots of corners in the United States, and some far-flung corners of the globe.

Click to learn more about Morgan .

Morgan Loew
CBS 5 Investigates

Morgan’s past assignments include covering the invasion of Iraq, human smuggling in Mexico, vigilantes on the border and Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County. His reports have appeared or been featured on CBS News, CNN, NBC News, MSNBC and NPR.

Morgan’s peers have recognized his work with 11 Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards, two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative reporting, an SPJ First Amendment Award, and a commendation from the Humane Society of the United States. In October 2016, Morgan was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle in recognition of 25 years of contribution to the television industry in Arizona.

Morgan is graduate of the University of Arizona journalism school and Concord Law School at Purdue University Global. He is the president of the Arizona First Amendment Coalition and teaches media law and TV news reporting at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

When he’s not out looking for the next big news story, Morgan enjoys hiking, camping, cheering for the Arizona Wildcats and spending time with his family at their southern Arizona ranch.

Hide bio