DENVER — The captain lined up his 747 airtanker with the Holy Fire incinerating California’s Cleveland National Forest and prepared to steer the retrofitted freighter straight into the jaws of hell. Following a tiny spotter plane silhouetted in a cockpit window against the smoky inferno, the pilot descended toward the trees and released 19,000 gallons of magenta retardant.
Dubbed the “Spirit of John Muir,” the jumbo jet has attained Hollywood-like celebrity on social media and television this summer. Between July 7 and Aug. 9, it flew 41 sorties over 10 massive blazes scorching the Pacific Coast. Jittery residents pleaded for it to be sent to save their homes.
“We’ve had phone calls from individuals on our line in California desperate to know what is going on and asking us, ‘Why isn’t the plane flying?’ ” said Roger Miller, a managing partner at Alterna Capital Partners, which counts Global SuperTanker Services among its aviation assets.
The “fire bomber” is among the scores of airtankers and helicopters attacking record-breaking wildfires in states across the West. Yet demand for such resources far exceeds supply. In July, as the Ferguson Fire threatened the shuttered Yosemite Valley, incident commanders requested air support. A call came back that nothing was available.
The response reflected a complexity of issues that offer many Westerners little reassurance about the future, which in a warming climate seems certain to feature ever-longer and more intense wildfire seasons. The risk grows as people continue to move into heavily forested areas where millions of dead trees, victims of drought and beetle infestation, haven’t been culled in more than a generation.
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.
And while states are beefing up their own aerial firefighting forces, they are also competing among themselves for the private aircraft available. “As demand outstrips supply, prices will go up, and those who can pay more or pay sooner will get the resource,” said Tony Kern, former national aviation officer for the Forest Service who now directs safety for World View Enterprises.
Beyond environmental concerns — chemicals in the retardant can harm plants and fish and foul waterways — there’s also the issue of how much air attacks help to extinguish flames.
Many fire managers agree that the tankers are most effective in an event’s initial stages, with helicopters doing their best work when a blaze is transitioning into a bigger conflagration. But they disagree about how well these fleets help to curb infernos like California’s Carr Fire, which created a “fire tornado” with speeds of up to 143 miles per hour that ripped off roofs. A study the Forest Service ordered in 2012 to determine the best mix of aircraft, as well as to document the effectiveness of water and retardant drops, has still not released results.
Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, a former federal wildland firefighter, is a critic. He says tankers increasingly are dropping retardant on steep, densely forested slopes in the heat of the afternoon, when it can drift and quickly be outpaced by the flames before ground crews arrive.
“It’s being dumped in times and places and conditions where it’s least effective,” Ingalsbee said. “It makes great film at 11 p.m. on the local news — but it’s just a big air show.”
Questions about the nation’s airborne firefighting fleet, as well as whether to replace aging craft, have dogged the Forest Service over four presidential administrations. Then, in 2002, two planes literally fell apart in midair while battling flames. Five crew members were killed, and officials grounded the rest of the nation’s fleet for safety inspections.
A blue-ribbon panel was convened. It recommended that the force be modernized and that the Federal Aviation Administration tighten oversight. But in the ensuing 16 years, the Forest Service and Congress have struggled to come up with the right combination of aircraft for intensifying fire seasons.
Four World War II-era airtankers, privately held but on exclusive-use government contracts, were retired permanently last year. Large helicopters operating under similar agreements now number 28, down from 34 two years ago.
The agency has made up the difference by retaining 11 airtankers and 47 large helicopters on call-when-needed contracts, spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said in an email. It also can mobilize seven military C-130s and additional tankers through an agreement with the state of Alaska.
In June, the Forest Service issued a request for proposals for large, next-generation airtankers that it would access through a variety of arrangements. When the new planes might become available is unclear.
This summer’s record-breaking wildfires have dramatically shown what’s at stake. Through Aug. 17, officials recorded 40,880 fires and more than 5.7 million acres burned — 21 percent more acreage than the 10-year average. The national preparedness level remains at the highest-alert mark, indicating that most firefighters, engines, aircraft and other assets are working nonstop.
“With weather and fuel conditions out here right now, we need all the assets we can lay our hands on to protect homes and property,” said Mike Beasley, a fire behavior specialist on contract with the Forest Service in California.
Like the federal government, states are signing more privately held airtankers and helicopters to call-when-needed contracts.
“It’s incumbent on Oregon to be able to fight our fires,” said Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection for its Department of Forestry. “To date, our aircraft have flown an absolutely staggering number of hours.”
The Oregon legislature allocated $5 million in 2013 in part to fund exclusive-use contracts for 16 privately held aircraft. Those flew 831 hours through early August, compared with 1,500 hours in all of 2017. With the 2018 season only a third over, Grafe expects the final hours count will exceed last year’s total.
In 2014, following Colorado’s largest and most destructive fires in history, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed a bipartisan bill that allocated $19.7 million to create the state’s first aerial firefighting force. Incident commanders can call on six wildland-fire aircraft, and the state recently signed a contract with Global SuperTanker.
Several of Colorado’s aircraft follow lightning storms to search out and track blazes. Doing so allows fire managers to deploy airtankers early on, when the area involved is still relatively small.
“Aircraft can get into places crews can’t, hopefully to get an initial stop on a fire to allow ground crews to get in there and put it out,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, a CalFire spokeswoman. The agency operates a fleet of about 50 planes, though that has not been enough this summer given the hundreds of thousands of acres burning statewide.
Aviation now accounts for about 25 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s total suppression expenditures each year, and critics say it is wasting taxpayer money by turning to privately owned planes on the far more expensive call-when-needed contracts.
Any significant lag in response can cost millions, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General. About 150 fires escaped initial attack between 2004 and 2007, the analysis found, requiring the federal government to spend up to $450 million more than would have been needed if the blazes were contained early on.
With fire seasons in the West threatening to become year-round, many forestry experts say it’s time for Americans to reconsider how they fight back.
“How many catastrophes do we need to have?” said Steve Pyne, a fire historian and a professor at Arizona State University. “We are coming to look at fires like we do mass school shootings — no matter how many we have, we aren’t changing our behavior.”
Jennifer Oldham, a freelance reporter based in Colorado, is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.