Federal report questions aerial wildfire battle strategies

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 12:56 PM

JaNae Francis, Standard-Examiner Staff

With the old and the new, Western firefighters are pressing on in the use of aerial wildfire suppression techniques, deploying planes and now even Predator drones.

Privately owned air tankers that drop retardant are an important part of the way wildfires have been fought in Utah since the 1950s, according to a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

Don Smurthwaite said Thursday there is no question that dropping retardant is an important firefighting tactic.

“There are many studies that conclude that retardant put down at the right time and the right place is effective,” Smurthwaite said. “We strongly feel that retardant has a place in wildfire suppression. It’s been proven over and over again for 60 years. Retardant does not put out the fire, but it slows the progress of the fire. It allows firefighters on the ground to construct line and that eventually leads to containing the wildfire.”

He noted that he is a former firefighter.

“It was always good to see an air tanker dropping retardant, because you knew the fire would slow down, and that’s always a blessing on the ground. … You can almost bet that when there is a wildfire in Utah, there are private air tankers in the air,” he said.

But a federal report out this week said studies done over the past two decades have yet to provide data on the effectiveness of various private aircraft contracted by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior to fight wildfires.

The report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office outlined ongoing challenges to modernizing the nation’s aging and dwindling fleet of large air tankers, and said the Forest Service sometimes falls short in collaborating with other agencies and private companies on aerial firefighting strategy.

The office recommended the agencies collect better data and improve collaboration.

“We concur with GAO’s recommendation that federal agencies would benefit from more data on the effectiveness and performance of aircraft, and that more collaboration would be helpful,” Smurthwaite said in a prepared statement. “However, the report does not address the use of retardant, but only the aviation fleet used to deliver it. The federal fire agencies maintain that retardant is effective when used in proper circumstances.”

According to an Associated Press report, Forest Service officials generally agreed with the report and have started collecting more information to help improve strategy.

“It’s not tomorrow that we’re going to have all of this worked out,” Tom Harbour, the agency’s director of fire and aviation management, said Wednesday. “We understand the complexity, but we’re working on it.”

The Interior Department said in its formal response to the report, which was requested by five U.S. senators, that it agreed with the findings and recommendations. The Interior Department contracts for fewer and smaller aircraft and plays a smaller role in aerial firefighting than the Forest Service, said the report.

Firefighting officials also are employing drone technology in a limited number of areas, not including Utah.

As crews advanced against a giant wildfire around Yosemite National Park this week, fire commanders said they would maintain use of a Predator drone to give them early views of any new flare-ups across in the remote and rugged landscape.

Officials remained confident Thursday about their efforts to corral the Rim Fire, which grew by a relatively modest few hundred acres overnight.

The fire had burned about 301 square miles as of Thursday morning and remained 30 percent contained. It has cost $39 million to fight.

But Smurthwaite said he discussed drones with his colleagues, and they were “pretty doubtful” that any such devices would be used anytime soon for wildfire suppression in Utah.

“We’re still a little ways away from the day when (drones) will be common for suppression,” Smurthwaite said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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