In reference, to a High Country News article, when wildland fires loom, the masses look to planes and helicopters to extinguish the raging infernos. With Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs) dropping upwards of 12,000 gallons or more per trip, who doesn’t love seeing that glorious red retardant drench everything in its path below? It instills hope to those in peril. Political entities and news outlets clamor for more with every drop made. But are aerial retardant drops safe and effective enough to validate such a high bill?
Having to fly near, and sometimes through, naturally hazardous conditions created by wildfires has resulted in over 40 lives lost in the last 10 years.
Conversely, if indistinguishable incident rates occurred on the ground, the USFS determined, in excess of 200 ground units would perish annually. Additionally, the retardant used is rich in nitrogen which has been known to damage populations of watersheds, in spite of guidelines preventing drops over susceptible areas.
Firefighting from aerial platforms is costly.
Large air tankers (LATs) alone can cost $6,000 or more an hour. The retardant itself runs around $2 a gallon, which the USFS used upwards of 9 million gallons in 2014. It is anticipated that due to rising costs and frequency and severity of wildland fire incidents, funds will have to be diverted from other programs within the agency. A critic of utilizing aerial suppression, Andy Stahl, claims that aerial firefighting is not only costly, hazardous and bad for the environment, but also that it has yet to produce evidence that aerial firefighting actually works.
Stahl is the director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. USFS experiments showed that slurry can dampen fire intensity and cover up to two times as much as water alone can.
AFUE modules aim to capture not only what aerial assets are doing, but why they are being ordered, what it is that they actually end up doing, when they get to an incident, and what the outcome of a drop is. In conjunction, module members also look at what ground personnel and resources are doing. Essentially, AFUE members are figuring out what the needs are on a fire, what’s happening in the moment, what the weather is doing, what the terrain is like, and all other factors that go into wildland firefighting. At the end of the day, AFUE personnel try to paint a picture of the incident. Data gathered is then prepared for a statistical analysis so that the probability of success can be determined. Data points found from the study and from other studies will be used in making informed decisions in the future to determine the composition of the National Interagency Fire Center’s aircraft fleet, which is used in the managing of wildland incidents. When personnel look at aerial assets and what they’re doing, as well as whether or not they were successful, they can understand as firefighters and fire managers that it’s not a black and white scale of success. There is large gray scale in which both aerial assets and ground resources contribute to the success of an operation or campaign even if one piece of what they are doing may not be successful.
Effective ground, air, and combined firefighting efforts are those with outcomes that meet or exceed a set of observed suppression objectives at nested scales. As effectiveness is being measured, one of the first objectives is determining the intended application. When outcomes are determined, AFUE module members attempt to align the outcomes with what happened based on original intent. Module personnel then figure out what it was ground resources wanted to do with an aerial resource and whether or not those on the ground felt as though their needs were met.
“As capacity and need are constantly evaluated, there’s been a lot more subjectivity in effectiveness over the years,” according to Mike Minton (Type 1 Incident Commander and Interagency Fire Chief, Six Rivers NF- Redwood NP). Mike goes on to say that beginning to get to a place where firefighters and fire managers can be a little more objective is an important task because there is a lot of room for growth in being more effective in how retardant is applied. By having quality information, good data and quantifiable terms, AFUE module members can speak more intelligently to line officers, agency administrators, and the public about probabilities of success. All that data equates to a stronger training platform which then equates to a stronger foundation for firefighters to be able to make sound decisions and to have the tools they need and to be able to utilize them properly.