Are Supertankers Worthwhile or Just PR?

Due to budget cuts, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection–CalFire for short–is canceling its contract for exclusive use of two DC-10 supertankers. These supertankers are “perhaps [the] most effective tool” the agency has for fighting fires, says the news story.

That’s not just an exaggeration, it is probably completely wrong. When the Antiplanner was in forestry school, some four decades ago, the fire management professors were openly scornful of aerial firefighting. “The agencies use aerial tankers only because the press demands it,” they said. “They need the video to show on TV.”

Word on the street is that CalFire canceled the contract precisely because the supertankers were both the most expensive and least effective weapons in the agency’s firefighting arsenal. If they really need the planes, they can hire them on a day-to-day basis, provided someone else hasn’t hired them. This will cost more per day but probably less per year.

The Forest Service is in the same situation. The agency has cut its fleet from 44 to 19. Although Congress is probably eager to fund its use of supertankers, word is that agency officials don’t want to be saddled with the supertankers and so have delayed release of a “blue-ribbon” report on the topic.

No doubt Evergreen Aviation, which owns the world’s largest firefighting supertanker, has used its contacts in Congress to pressure the Forest Service to hire its planes. Evergreen has a long history of using political connections to sell its services to the CIA, Forest Service, and other agencies.

In other news, the California Department of Forestry has recognized that fighting fires, not managing forests, is its main job and changed its name to reflect that reality. Now it is time for the Forest Service–which spends half its budget on fire–to change its name to the Fire Service.

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27 thoughts on “Are Supertankers Worthwhile or Just PR?

  1. irandom

    But they do make confusing movies like Always. Hopefully, it won’t impact that museum in McMinnville. :-)

    I always wondered about that since they are going so fast so far up, retardant seems to have a lot of time to disperse. Makes you wonder if it is colored for the reports benefit. Personally, I think we should just let it burn endlessly, unless it threatens property or people. Maybe, do prescribed burns to create a giant buffer zone.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096794/

    http://www.evergreenmuseum.org/

  2. metrosucks

    “The agencies use aerial tankers only because the press demands it,” they said

    I’ve always wondered how effective aerial retardant drops actually were. It’s not the first time government has spent billions on worthless tech, though. Just look at high speed rail (for example).

  3. Andy Stahl

    In the 30+ years since the Antiplanner graduated from forestry school, no study has shown that aerial fire retardant improves initial attack success, reduces acres burned, saves homes, or protects firefighters’ lives. Aviation accidents account for more wildland firefighter deaths than any single other cause. From 1999 to 2009, 61 firefighters died as a result of aviation accidents. In 2002, an interagency Blue Ribbon Panel found that “The safety record of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in wildland fire management is unacceptable.” Since the Blue Ribbon report issued in 2002, aviation-related fatalities have gone up 50 percent compared to the three-year period preceding the panel’s report.

    From 2000 to 2010, the national forest initial attack success rate (defined as the % of ignitions kept below 300 acres) was negatively correlated with fire retardant use. No correlation, or only a weak negative one, between average fire size and retardant use. [The statistics are available here]

    No data or study demonstrates any correlation between aerial retardant use and structure loss. On the contrary, a home’s ignition risk is determined by its construction materials and design and by the vegetation within close proximity (about 30 meters) to the structure.

  4. Dan

    I have an old acquaintance who tells the story of being trapped while fighting a fire in CA, a tanker was nearby & called in to drop an escape route, and all fire was instantly suppressed and they got out. So I doubt its useless. Nonetheless, I’m still waiting for a market to be created to do something with small diameter stems so we can thin areas without offering private firms large-diameter stems from pre-suppression days. Still waiting on that market. Also waiting for drought trends to end, seasons to return to ‘normal’, dust to stop blowing and melting earlier, winter temperatures to cool down, second homes to be torn down in the WUI, etc.

    DS

  5. metrosucks

    planner said:

    Nonetheless, I’m still waiting for a market to be created to do something with small diameter stems so we can thin areas without offering private firms large-diameter stems from pre-suppression days. Still waiting on that market. Also waiting for drought trends to end, seasons to return to ‘normal’, dust to stop blowing and melting earlier, winter temperatures to cool down, second homes to be torn down in the WUI, etc

    No doubt that the government will step in and provide all those services that the free market “won’t”. Such is faith in Almighty Government.

  6. Frank

    “Also waiting for … winter temperatures to cool down…etc.”

    Winter temperatures in the Western US have cooled over the last five years. The snow pack last year was phenomenal and it has been for a couple of years now. Can’t even get near waterfalls in Yosemite go swimming in rivers throughout much of the West. I’m still waiting for Olympic, North Cascades, and Rainier to melt out. SSTs show now sign of resumed warning, either.

  7. metrosucks

    Yep Frank. They are not opening Artist Point this year, either. And the way the weather has been going, they’ll still be snow on the ground when the new snowfall starts in the fall.

  8. Dan

    Frank, it is no longer cold enough in the West in the winter to kill overwintering beetles*. This is well-established. Combined with lower water equivalent in snowpack*, the earlier snowmelt**, and summer drought*** and you have millions of hectares of stressed trees that can’t pitch out beetles that aren’t killed by cold. All well-known. Now combine with second homes, some forests past their FRI from suppression, and we get what we have today. Basic.

    DS

    * http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/2009EI283.1
    ** http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/JHM428.1
    *** http://lh3.ggpht.com/_pQyvcBbJ0Fs/TFdovIjftxI/AAAAAAAACOU/JXKnMV3lp5s/image5.png [src: http://epa.gov/climatechange/indicators.html ]

  9. metrosucks

    Remind me how the snowpack is melting earlier, say, this year.

    Idiot left-wing talking point parroting planner. The definition of mental illness. I don’t think there’s a single left wing talking point or idea that Dan doesn’t agree with.

    Bear in mind that the articles to which he linked (the actual articles, not EPA propaganda) clearly stated that the cause of earlier snowmelt “has not been determined”.

  10. Bernard von Schulmann

    In BC, home to many more and bigger fires in most years, the government has moved away from fixed wing aircraft to helicopters. The helicopters can drop the load closer to where it needs to be. They can also refill by dipping into almost any lake near the fire, no need to land to refill. Their capacity is only 1/25th of the DC 10, but they can do as many as 20 dumps in a hour and have all of them dropped directly on the hotspot from a low height.

    The biggest water bombers in BC, the Martin Mars, have been spending more time in California in the last few years than BC because even they are not proving as cost effective and efficient as helicopters. Their capacity is about 30% less than the DC 10, but they can fill up by scooping directly from a lake.

    Speed and precision are most important for aerial firefighting, not volume.

  11. Frank

    Not only do those articles state the cause “has not been determined”, they also don’t cover the cooling of the last four years. One article is from 2009 and the other from 2005. NASA couldn’t accurately forecast the duration of this solar minimum and nor did they see the intense La Nina and unprecedented cooling in the PNW:

    July 2011: Temperatures for July 1 – 18 are averaging 1.0 degrees below normal
    June 2011: Temperatures for the month averaged 1.3 degrees below normal
    May 2011: Temperatures for the month averaged 3.5 degrees below normal
    April 2011: Temperatures for the month averaged 4.7 degrees below normal
    March 2011: Temperatures for the month averaged 1.1 degrees below normal
    February 2011: Temperatures for the month averaged 4.1 degrees below normal
    January 2011: Temperatures for the month averaged 0.9 degrees above normal
    December 2010: Temperatures for the month averaged 2.5 degrees above normal
    November 2010: Temperatures for the month averaged 2.0 degrees below normal
    October 2010: Temperatures for the month averaged 0.6 degrees above normal
    September 2010: Temperatures for the month averaged 0.2 degrees below normal
    August 2010: Temperatures for the month averaged 0.3 degrees below normal
    July 2010: Temperatures for the month averaged 0.8 degrees below normal
    June 2010: Temperatures for the month averaged 2.4 degrees below normal
    May 2010: Temperatures for the month averaged 2.6 degrees below normal
    April 2010: Temperatures for the month averaged 0.7 degrees below normal

    The temp trend since the end of the last solar maximum has been downward for Seattle, Portland, and many western regions.

    I don’t know how two- to five-year-old studies can show that the western snow pack this winter, much of it over 180% of average, is “low water equivalent”. Sh!t. Look at the June snow pack. Much of it was over 250%, indicating a slower melt time. Look at stream flows. dan can parrot old predictions, but 2011 snow water content is overwhelmingly over 200% of normal.

    So basically Dan relies on old evidence, talking points, and he cherry picks and ignores new evidence that doesn’t support his favored paradigm.

  12. Frank

    You’d have to be an ideologue not to acknowledge that this year’s snow pack moisture is above normal. Here’s water equivalent as percentage of normal. Measurement goes off the scale, which is only 140%. All one needs to do is Google snowpack moisture 2011 to see Dan’s assertions weren’t true for this year.

    Hopefully the sun fires up again. I want to go backpacking in August and next summer in June.

  13. Frank

    metrosucks, I hit snow at 3500 feet on Adams. Campgrounds were still closed and I just about froze even on the south side. I’ve got great video and stills of Rainier and Adams snowpack. I’ve given up on tomatoes the last four years. Impossible.

    Notice how Dan didn’t refute that sea surface temperatures (SST) have not resumed warming.

    He’s my question for Dan: If he’s so worried about global warming, climate change, or whatever, will he please trade me my 750 square foot apartment in a high density neighborhood for his 2000+ square foot suburban house with attached garage? He must feel pretty guilty. I’d be willing to absolve him of his sins.

  14. metrosucks

    Well Frank, Dan is the consummate ideologue. And you find that they tend to fall into one of two camps. They either maniacally believe what they spew, or they’re getting paid to shill for their position.

    Now, given that Dan is a planner, I am not surprised that he advocates government and planning solutions for everything. But he doesn’t have to come on here and make an ass of himself, and offend everyone with his allusions to “requiring changes in medication” to smear anyone who doesn’t agree with him. Let him do that, in person, at his little planning/propaganda meets.

    As someone who lives in a 950 square foot apartment with a roommate, I would also be happy to trade for a 2000 square foot suburban house. But I suspect that Dan isn’t very guilty about enjoying “forbidden” pleasures such as a house with a yard, and an SUV. Like the Soviet leaders of old, he likes having his country dacha while promoting policy that prevents the rest of us from enjoying the same.

  15. metrosucks

    Oh, btw Dan, go ahead and use words/phrases like “dissembling”, “Under-wattaged dissemblings and mischaracterizations notwithstanding”, “making sh-t up”, and so on. Or maybe an appeal to authority is in order, such as this one:

    But gee whiz! maybe all the programs, scholarship and anecdotes are suddenly wrong, destroyed by a blog post and a few harrumphing* comments! Wowzers! Stranger things have happened, ya know.

  16. Dan

    Frank, thanks so much for conflating the last couple years with climate, and either not reading or misunderstanding the empirical, testable evidence I provided and the direction in that evidence that points you to more empirical evidence. Ohhhh, I know, I know: reality isn’t as good as what we wish we knew! See, thing is, all this started years ago. Not a couple years ago. Decades.

    But…saaaaaaay…maybe you’ve destroyed decades of research, refuted dozens of papers, negated the work of scores of field biologists simply with your comments here on this blog! Wowie!!!!!!!!! MPB, fire et al. didn’t start in warmer temps and drought after all! Some guy said so! Makes sense to me!!!!!!! Basic information isn’t basic information if Frank can’t believe it! Wow. Paradigm shift! Fire hasn’t gotten worse because precip isn’t down historically – even though precip is down historically – because Frank doesn’t wanna believe it!

    Golly, ya know gee whiz, that’s really the only explanation that holds. Nothing else makes sense: You know more than scores of scientists, their papers and their life work! Impressive, surely.

    The power of comments on blogs – never fails to amaze. Gosh. Prrrrops, sir. Props. Booya. Word. NewScience on blogs. What next? Gravity out the window? Frank’s Unified Field Theory? Frank overturns Dark Matter and calls it Medium-Blue Matter instead?!?!? The mind reels.

    chuckle

    DS

  17. Frank

    On July 20th, 2011, Dan said:

    Frank, it is no longer cold enough in the West in the winter to kill overwintering beetles*. This is well-established. Combined with lower water equivalent in snowpack*, the earlier snowmelt**, and summer drought*** and you have millions of hectares of stressed trees that can’t pitch out beetles that aren’t killed by cold. All well-known. Now combine with second homes, some forests past their FRI from suppression, and we get what we have today. Basic.

    Except all these have been turned on their heads for the last five years. No appeal to ridicule can hide that. The next few years will tell if the doomsayers’ apocalyptic prophesies will materialize. Dan can resort to puerile tactics to hand-flap away from the solar cycle/ENSO correlation, but truth be told, Dan is just an asshole living in suburban Aurora who never even finished the requirements for a master’s degree in planning at the University of Washington. Don’t believe me? Type in Dan Staley on the degree verification page there and you get zero.

  18. metrosucks

    Awww, but Dan didn’t use the phrase “spewing thoughts by mis-dosage”….that’s my favorite one! Well at least he used the word “conflating”.

    Well you’re right Frank. I think Dan is a bitter asshole who wasn’t good enough to finish his masters, and he takes it out on everyone around him by acting like God’s gift to intellectuality.

  19. Frank

    “Fire hasn’t gotten worse because precip isn’t down historically – even though precip is down historically… ”

    Precip? River flow and precip are two entirely different things. Snowpack this season is far above normal. The link that Dan provides supposedly about precip shows Colorado River flow at Lee’s Ferry through 2004. Way to cherry pick and use old data again, especially when 2005, 2007, and 2011 exceeded historical averages and 2004 was only part way through an ENSO and solar cycle, thus providing an incomplete snapshot of an 11-year cycle and the full climate picture.

    This year, the water supply outlook for the Colorado is well above normal. Flow at Lee’s Ferry is 159% of normal. The Virgin River is 373% of normal (good luck hiking Zion’s Narrows!). Lake Powell is rising a foot a day, and “the measurements of flows from rivers that feed into Lake Powell show them at nearly 257 percent of average and half the snowpack is left to melt, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.” The Colorado headwaters have broken record flows.

    Yes, these events might be a fluke of a particularly strong ENSO, but it’s worth considering that this pattern may be repeated, especially in light of NASA’s prediction of lower solar output and NOAA’s prediction that La Nina conditions may return to North America in the fall.

    But let’s return to Dan’s original statement that set us down this tangent: “Also waiting for drought trends to end, seasons to return to ‘normal’, dust to stop blowing and melting earlier, winter temperatures to cool down…”

    Dan accuses me of conflating (one of his favorite words) climate with “the last couple of years” when it was he who stated he was waiting for drought trends to end, snow to stop melting earlier, winter temperatures to cool down. Well, Dan, you don’t have to wait any more! These things have happened over the last few years, and I’ve provided ample evidence. I have a feeling this trend could continue and it still wouldn’t be enough for Dan. He’d move the goalpost again.

  20. Dan

    Frank, my claim was fire has been exacerbated by drought, higher temps leading to beetle outbreaks and earlier spring onset, fire suppression in some forests that have exceeded their FRI, and second homes in the WUI. Since Randal and I agree on the WUI and FRI, I provided empirical evidence for the drought and higher temps.

    You have not provided evidence refuting my claim. As any high-schooler knows, four years of stuff isn’t going to correct two + decades of persistence.

    That is, as I have pointed out before, this doesn’t cut the mustard. I might have phrased it differently in the past. You have cherry-picked these phrases before to mislead mendaciously, so in context here, your argumentation cuts zero mustard and wouldn’t stand scrutiny in an 11th-grade essay.

    Sorry to break it to you. I’m sure your local community college has some basic natural science and rhetoric classes that you can take so you can construct a decent counter-argument. Problem there is, having some knowledge in natural sciences will allow you to understand who has command of the facts.

    But maybe you want to start a letter-writing campaign to the scientific community and tell them that a couple years of snow refutes all their findings. Let us know how it goes. Share their replies if they read them.

    DS

  21. LazyReader

    A lot of those fires that happen out west, where do they happen, ususally on government lands. Theres a lot of private owned land as well that hasn’t burst into flames because it’s better managed. We’ve seen the consequences of nearly a century of bad forest management, It’s not always the more trees the better.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ea/Forest_Development_in_Bitterroot.jpg

    Conventional fire suppression is labor intensive and expensive and increases the likelihood of more devastating future wildfires. Those prescribed burns, they are rare on most lands and even rarer on pasture or grasslands.

  22. metrosucks

    True, but I bet the enviroscum/Sierra Club would have a big problem with managing Federal Lands in that fashion.

    Now on the other hand, if they used only selective cutting and responsible management, timber companies wouldn’t draw the ire of so many citizens. Clear cuts look like land raping.

  23. LazyReader

    I always thought clear cuts look like Plinko. It’s not like logging is the most destructive practice, they grow back. But as much as we hate it, it’s easier to clear cut than be selective. You cut down a few trees in a given area, it’s like painting yourself in a corner. You have to navigate the logs through all the standing trees that you didn’t cut down, which involves using cranes or helicopters which adds to the expense. Maybe our hope lies in genetically modified faster growing varieties.

    The Antiplanner lives in an exurban area, by that I assume lots and lots of conifers, I assume he’s takin’ the necessary precautions to avert an otherwise potential catastrophe.

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