Big planes that drop water, called scoopers, put more drops on a fire than air tankers that drop retardant say researchers at RAND.
The nonprofit research organization hired by the Forest Service concluded the agency would save money and fight fires better with more scoopers than tankers.
“Because scoopers cost less and can make multiple water drops per hour when water sources are nearby, we found that the most cost-effective firefighting fleet for the Forest Service will have more scoopers than air tankers for the prevention of large fires,” said Edward G. Keating, lead author of the study and a senior economist at RAND. “However, air tankers are important in an ancillary role in initial attack for the minority of wildfires where water sources are not nearby, and possibly for fighting large fires as well.”
The Forest Service has been trying to determine the best composition of aircraft to replace its aging air fleet for several years. Its fleet includes leased former military air tankers that date back to the 1950s. These older aircraft have been failing, with two fatal crashes in 2002 and two accidents in June 2012, one of which was fatal. Several weeks ago, legislation was finalized allowing the Forest Service to move forward with contracts for seven new tankers.
Wildfire suppression costs have increased dramatically since 2000, averaging about $1.65 billion per year. Part of this rise is because residential development has expanded into areas that were previously wilderness, but it also may be a consequence of climate changeand the accumulation fuel created by years of aggressive fire suppression, experts say.
The RAND study estimates the average social cost of a large wildfire at $3.3 million. Half of the fires cost less than $1 million and 10 percent cost more than $10 million. Fires near populated areas can be vastly more costly than fires in isolated regions, RAND said in its press release.
Critics like Andy Stahl have questioned the value of tankers for firefighting, especially away from populated areas. But RAND said large aircraft can help prevent expensive large fires, easily justifying their annual cost if their activities account for the prevention of just a few large fires each year.
The total annual capital and operating costs per aircraft range from approximately $2.8 million for a 1,600-gallon scooper to $7.1 million for a 3,000-gallon air tanker, before factoring in the cost of fire retardant, Keating said.
Helicopters can use bodies of water as small as 12 feet in diameter. Scoopers need larger bodies of water, generally ranging from a quarter of a mile to eight-tenths of a mile in length, depending on obstacles adjacent to the water. RAND researchers found that at least two-thirds of the fires studied have been within 10 miles of a body of water that appeared to meet scoopers’ requirements, and about 80 percent of fires have been within five miles of water bodies that would accommodate helicopters.
Another finding of the study was the importance of efficient pre-positioning of aircraft to meet the next day’s firefighting needs and what the researchers termed “dispatch prescience.” This is the kind of “Moneyball” thinking that could both save money and reduce destruction of both homes and habitat.
When aircraft can be correctly and flexibly pre-positioned, fewer are needed. And if aircraft dispatch can send planes to just those fires where they make the difference between having a large fire or not -- fewer aircraft would be needed. The Forest Service could dramatically reduce its aviation costs if it could increase dispatch prescience and pre-positioning accuracy.
“We think there may be an opportunity for the Forest Service to improve its aircraft location and dispatch algorithms, and possibly reduce aviation costs considerably,” Keating said.