If I were to describe the state of the aerial firefighting industry today, it would come down to two words: preparation and uncertainty. Preparation is for fire seasons that are only getting worse and much more destructive. Uncertainty is because nobody yet knows just how federal budgetary issues and funding for wildland firefighting are going to play out.
At least the good news is that as fire seasons get longer and merge, the industry is well prepared. There is no better evidence of that than the industry’s performance throughout the 2017 fire season. Starting in Florida in early February, and spreading nationwide with almost no letup, wildland fires raged out of control, often for weeks at a time. In California, the state experienced the most destructive fires in its history, as more than 9,130 fires burned over 1,381,400 acres, consuming in excess of 10,800 structures and taking 43 lives, including two firefighters. Particularly hard hit were the densely populated, wildland/urban interface areas of southern California, as well as the San Francisco Bay region’s northern counties.
The aerial firefighters’ level of response to such a severe fire season was no less than extraordinary. As an example, Neptune Aviation Services, which had retired its remaining legacy P2V Neptunes, recalled two to active duty on extremely short notice, for immediate deployment to California under call-when-needed contracts from the state.
The U.S. aerial firefighting industry also mounted an unprecedented response to fires taking place on a global basis. Both Neptune Aviation Services and Helicopter Express dispatched firefighting assets to Chile, while other operators worked as far afield as Europe and Australia. The widespread U.S. and global distribution of equipment by the entire industry was absolutely unparalleled. As the past year’s fire events have proven, aerial firefighting has irrecoverably transitioned from what was historically a seasonal enterprise of a few months duration to a year-round business with little downtime.
The privately owned airtanker and helicopter operators, ramping up for another year of what could be an equally destructive and lengthy fire season, now have a totally modern fleet for deployment. With the last of the legacy large air tankers withdrawn from service, the era of former Post-World War II and Korean War vintage military aircraft modified for aerial firefighting is over. Their replacements are a new generation of tankers that include modified BAe 146 regional jets and wide-body commercial transports, such as DC-10s and 747-400s, reconfigured for aerial firefighting. With their increased speed and range, these modern tankers offer a global, rapid-response capability and greater fire retardant carrying capacity.
Helicopter operators also are upgrading their fleets. Some are even bringing in former U.S. Army Sikorsky UH-60s that are coming onto the civilian market, presenting new opportunities to apply more capable aircraft for the aerial firefighting mission. Larger Type 1 helicopters such as the UH-60 and the CH- 47D are becoming more common in aerial firefighting.
Despite the transition to newer air tanker platforms and helicopters, that prevailing sense of uncertainty remains, thanks to what appears to be a trend toward a new contracting model. Since the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has yet to award Exclusive Use contracts for the next generation of large airtankers and Type II helicopters for the 2018 fire season (as of this writing), the industry’s biggest concern is that the USFS will opt for a reduced number of exclusive use contracts in favor of more call-when-needed contracting.
That not only provides uncertainty with respect to financial planning in the short term, but also presents significant long-term ramifications for an organization’s ability to recruit qualified pilots and mechanics and invest in new equipment, maintenance and training. At the same time, call-when-needed contracts are historically more costly for the customer since operators generally must charge higher rates to cover ongoing costs of doing business, compared to the guaranteed revenue stream that exclusive use contracts provide. Financial stability is the desire of all companies and is at the heart of their ability to plan effectively.
Closely related to the contract quandary are the unknowns surrounding the portion of the 2018 federal budget allocated to wildland firefighting. In 2017, the USFS spent a record $2.7 billion on fire suppression, which was about $500 million over the amount originally budgeted for the year and more than half the USFS budget. The shortfall was made up under a program referred to as “Fire Borrowing,” in which the USFS takes money allocated to other programs such as forest restoration projects that actually reduce the potential for catastrophic wildfires. Wildfire contractors are concerned about whether fire borrowing will be feasible under current budget proposals. What does seem apparent is that dedicated funding for firefighting will be stagnant, with looming potential cuts. The USFS expects wildfire costs to continue to rise in the future. The question is, will the uncertainties surrounding the firefighting budget be long term as well?
While the contractual issue remains the elephant in the room, the industry also is contending with a shortage of qualified mechanics and pilots, affecting helicopter and fixed wing air tankers equally. Very simply, the aerial firefighting technician and pilot forces are retiring and the pool of younger people to replace them isn’t there. For example, one of our AHSAFA members – a two-helicopter operation in central California – notes that it is very difficult to find pilots with long line experience; and finding mechanics qualified to work on helicopters is a huge challenge. As he points out, today there are competing opportunities for their capabilities from employers who can offer better pay and benefits than a small operator. Of course, this will only force wages up.
One bright outlook for the privately operated aerial firefighting companies appears to be the abandonment by the USFS of its plan to acquire a fleet of aging C-130s, formerly operated by the Coast Guard, for airtanker modification. The industry saw this as government competition with what has traditionally been a privately owned and operated business. Private industry is hard pressed to make sound investment decisions in an arena that includes a government-sponsored competitor. The future of the USFS C-130 program will undoubtedly be decided in Congress with the outcome of the 2019 budget. But after working for some four years and never having more than one or two of the seven aircraft available, it would be difficult if not impossible to portray this effort as an effective and efficient alternative to private industry.
Going forward, the airtanker and helicopter operators are likely to face another busy year as more people move into the wildland/urban interface, environmental changes create more potentially destructive fire conditions, and new equipment gives U.S. operators access to more international markets. For the year ahead, the preparation is there. It’s now a matter of meeting the operational challenges and finding opportunities – despite the uncertainties.
George Hill is executive director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association, a Washington-based aerial firefighting industry trade association.