Congress gave the Forest Service an early Christmas present last month: $65 million tucked in the fiscal 2015 spending bill for new wildfire-fighting aircraft.
The earmark, which the service didn’t officially request, could fund the agency’s first purchase of a new air tanker.
Large air tankers are a critical first line of attack when a fire ignites in the woods. They carry thousands of gallons of retardant that can be dropped to stunt a fire’s advance, giving ground crews time to build a fire line.
The agency’s aerial tanker fleet has been depleted over the years as a result of safety issues as well as contracting hiccups as it leases planes from the private sector.
The service believes more large air tankers are needed as climate change, insect epidemics and residential sprawl combine to make wildfire seasons more costly and dangerous. The agency wants 18 to 28 modern, large air tankers at its disposal that can fly faster and carry enough fire retardant to penetrate thick forest canopies. There is still some dispute over the effectiveness of dropping aerial retardants.
While the Forest Service successfully squelches about 98 percent of the fires requiring initial attack, those that do escape tend to grow quickly, threatening homes and the agency’s pocketbook.
But its fleet has shrunk. In-flight structural failures have caused at least six accidents since 1980, forcing the Forest Service to downsize the planes available from 44 in 2002 to eight in early 2013.
According to the spending bill, the $65 million must be spent for "acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency and safety."
In recent years, the Forest Service has leased large air tankers from private companies. But the procurement process has been fraught with delays as losing bidders challenge contracts given to their competitors, a pattern that has sparked concern among Western lawmakers (E&ENews PM, May 17, 2013).
The $65 million appears to offer a new paradigm under which the service would own new, longer-lasting planes and pay private firms to operate and maintain them.
The explanatory statement the House passed with the spending bill said: "It is critical to begin the process of developing a long-term solution for air support in fighting wildfires."
But it’s not clear what the agency is supposed to do with the money.
Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), said the legislation does not specify which aircraft to buy or how many.
Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said the money will be used to further the agency’s goal of bringing 18 to 28 modern air tankers into service. "We will be happy to provide specifics once we have them worked out," she said.
For now, the agency plans to soon issue a solicitation for up to seven additional "next generation" air tankers it hopes will be ready to fly for the 2015 season.
But those in wildfire aviation circles say they believe the Forest Service is eyeing a civilian version of the C-130J built by Lockheed Martin Corp. — which happens to sell for roughly $65 million.
That’s according to Bill Gabbert, former executive director of the International Association of Wildland Fire, who previously managed fires for several national parks, and Frank Gladics, a former forestry aide to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) who now lives in Idaho.
As Gabbert notes on his blog Fire Aviation, Lockheed is represented by lobbyist Mark Rey, who oversaw the Forest Service during the George W. Bush administration as Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and the environment. Rey’s latest lobbying disclosure says he works on "fire fighting aircraft."
Gabbert also quotes Jason Gagnon, a spokesman for Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the chief appropriator for the Forest Service, saying the $65 million is for purchasing "a C-130 to be specific."
Lockheed says on its website that the aircraft can operate from short, unprepared airfields without ground support equipment and could be equipped for missions including aerial firefighting.
Rey was not able to comment for the record for this story.
Gladics also believes the Forest Service plans to buy a single C-130J.
"There have been some people in the Forest Service who have dreamed of their own air force for a long time," he said.
But he said it’s hard to imagine Congress will find money to buy many more of those planes in today’s tight budget climate. They will also carry high operating and maintenance costs, he said.
"How many $65 million aircrafts can you afford? How much extra money is it going to take to get those planes up and fighting fires? And how long will it take?" Gladics said. "The answers are fairly opaque at this time."
Gladics said he does "minimal consultation" for the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association, which sees government-owned but contractor-operated aircraft as a competitive threat to the private aerial firefighting industry.
Years of debate
The $65 million appears to be have been a compromise between the House and the Senate.
Last summer, the House Appropriations Committee passed a spending bill that would have provided $130 million "only for the purpose of acquiring two aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet." The Senate’s draft bill for the Forest Service had no such language.
According to the Government Accountability Office, Gagnon and Gladics, there’s been support within the Forest Service to purchase new aircraft rather than rely on older aircraft inherited from other federal agencies — but there’s been resistance from the White House Office of Management and Budget.
"While the Forest Service has indicated its long-term intention to rely on a government-owned fleet of C-130Js to meet some or all of its large airtanker needs, the agency has been unable to demonstrate the feasibility of this approach to OMB, which would need to approve such an investment," said a GAO report from August 2013. Since 2005, the Forest Service had submitted two proposals to OMB for the government purchase of a large air tanker fleet, but both were rejected, GAO reported.
Hank Kashdan, a 37-year veteran of the Forest Service who retired four years ago as associate chief, said he was initially a skeptic of the Forest Service owning its own "air force." But after seeing companies dispute contract awards and grind the procurement process to a halt, he’s changed his mind.
"I think it is wise for the Forest Service to own a base-level contingent of large modern air tankers," he said. "With a need for up to 17 to 20 large air tankers, if the Forest Service owned a third and private industry the other two-thirds, I think you would have a healthy balance that promotes innovation and product development while assuring that the safety of communities and the protection of resources are not hampered by procurement bureaucracy."
A C-130J, if purchased, would join a fleet of seven C-130H tankers the Forest Service inherited from the Coast Guard, which are also government-owned. The transfer was made possible in late 2013 with Congress’ passage of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Each of those planes is capable of carrying up to 4,000 gallons of retardant but will need to be retired in six to 12 years, according to appropriators.
It will also cost a bundle to retrofit those aircraft for service. The Forest Service hopes to have the first of the C-130Hs flying wildfire suppression missions this summer equipped with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS). It’s not clear when the rest of the planes will come online.
The 2013 defense bill also transferred to the Forest Service 15 C-23B Sherpa aircraft to serve as smoke jumper and cargo transports. The agency also owns a number of helicopters and light planes.
Jones of the Forest Service said the agency expects to have up to 29 air tankers available for wildfire suppression nationwide in 2015, eight of which would be owned by the Defense Department.
- Up to seven "next-generation air tankers" from contracts awarded in 2013.
- Six "legacy air tankers" from contracts awarded in 2013.
- Up to seven "next-generation air tankers" from contracts awarded in 2015.
- One C-130H owned by the Forest Service and acquired from the Coast Guard through NDAA.
- Up to eight military C-130s equipped with MAFFS.