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Save A Billion $$ A Year--The New Fire Triangle

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |


We all know that wildfire is moving toward becoming a national crisis. As editor of Smokejumper, I am continually reaching out to writers from various backgrounds. Varied opinions and thoughts are important to throw into the discussion.

Michael Rains (Assoc.) has written some great articles on the importance of increasing the biomass industry in the U.S. Why not reduce the fuel load, add 300,000 jobs, and actually manage our forests? Hard to figure why no one in the govern- ment has figured this out.

Bottom line from Michael, to paraphrase-- The 2020 USFS budget shows an increase of $1.6 billion in the wildland firefighting budget and a decrease of $91 million in the forest management budget. We are treating the disease (wildfire) rather than preventing the disease (forest management).

It is easy to see why the public accepts this short-range view. Have an emergency situation, like a hurricane, flood or wildfire, and everyone wants to throw money at it without limit. But when it comes to preventing these emergencies, the public moans and groans about expenditures.

We rebuild homes destroyed in annual floods and hurricanes at taxpayer expense. Actually, the future generations will foot the bill as our national debt is headed toward the moon.

In this article, I want to show how we can save a billion dollars a year in the expense of fighting wildfire. The thread that I am using is common sense--what would you, a reader, do if presented with a problem and options to solve that problem?

Thanks to the Internet, I read a lot written by people who have spent their careers in wildfire. They all remind me of the people I worked for and with during my time with the Forest Service and the BLM--the best way to fight fire is to put it out.

The more information I get, the more I become discouraged. What happened to common sense? I'm going to throw out some ideas and thoughts that our leaders should take a look at.

Let It Burn--Isn't That The Way?

First, I need to say that 'let burn' is not the term to use as the USFS does not recognize it. We need to say 'managed fire' even though it sure looks like 'let burn.' Youmus B. Chitenmee, my friend from D.C., asks some great questions in another article in this issue. He would ask: "If you don't put out a fire, aren't you letting it burn?"

There is the thought that due to our great job of putting out wildfire for over 100 years, our forests have become clogged and overgrown. That could be true. Historically, wildfire has burned millions of acres. But let's face it, the U.S. is a different place in 2019 than it was in 1550.

I've heard so many references of how the Native Americans burned the landscape and man- aged the forests. However, I really don't think they had annual planned, prescribed burns and firecrews. My best guess is that they did use fire as a tool with a minimal amount of management. They probably gave it more thought than we do now and started their fires later in the season, when they would not burn out of the 'box.' Lastly, when any fires they set really turned into a 'gobbler,' they just got up and moved.

What is my point? We now are a nation of close to 330 million people. We do not have the option to let wildfire burn naturally, in my opin- ion. Even in Wilderness Areas, the smoke created by wildfire is causing large areas of our country to be under a cloud of smoke for months at a time. Has the Forest Service thrown the increased expenses in healthcare into the equation? Not a chance. If we add billions to our national health- care expenses, that is not their worry.

There Is A Way To Save A Billion $$ Annually

My reasoning for this statement is based on rapid Initial Attack (IA) using three 'arrows in the wildfire quiver.' Let's take a look at these 'three arrows' : Smokejumpers, Fire Boss Aircraft, and the Klump Pump.

The annual expenditure for fighting wildfire increased to almost three billion dollars in 2018, more than 12 times the amount spent in 1985 (US News). Bottom line, unless you live on Mars, you can see that we are in a critical situation--I would call it a National Crisis. It is now time for all members of Congress from the Western States to stand up and demand that we recognize that we have a problem that will continue to grow annually.

In the interview with Youmus B. Chitenmee (Citizen) in this issue, he says, "I'm from D.C., and we don't know much about wildfire back there." I think that Youmus knows more than our elected officials in the Western U.S. We will see what Youmus comes up with if he can talk to Wilford E. (Smoke) Baer and his brother, Booger. Youmus did a great interview with those two in the January and April issues of Smokejumper.

First Way To Save A Billion $$

Reverse the trend and let smokejumpers be used as they were designed to be used in 1940--initial attack as soon as possible. USFS smokejumper use in 2018 went down by over 300 fire jumps compared with the 10-year average. Jumpers jumped 35 fewer fires than that 10-year average.

Let's see--an increase in the length of the fire season by months, more money spent in controlling wildfire than in history, and less use of jumpers. Is there a move to eliminate smokejumpers?

What happened to the days when smokejumpers flew the forest after a lightning bust and jumped fires as they found them?

I have never experienced a more successful fire season than the one I had in New Mexico in 1961. If I remember correctly, we, a 24-man crew, had 460 fire jumps--a very busy season. We flew the storms and caught the fires while they were still in the trees that had been hit by lightning-- average fire, one-tenth of an acre.

I check the Smokejumper Status Report on the NSA website daily. It has been frustrating in past years to see the number of new fires and the large number of smokejumpers not in action. What is the thinking here? Is there a plan? Rapid IA, smaller fires, less money spent, less risk, and more available resources to fight the ones that get away--what is wrong with that?

Bottom line--there should be NO available smokejumpers on the daily status report. Everyone should be out on a fire. Somewhere along the line, the ability of smokejumpers to put out fire has been lost. They are a renewable resource. Contrary to Forest Service talk, there has never been a time when 'there are no smokejumpers available.' Use 'em!

From the Cave Junction logbook, courtesy Wes Brown (CJ-66): Entry for July 17, 1968: "The Klamath N.F. ordered 16 Jumpers for the Sam Gulch Fire. Pilot Ewing and Spotter Dee Dutton (MSO- 51), assisted by Jerry Katt (CJ-67), dropped Wessell, Wayers, Mewhinney, Hartman, Oliver, Bucklew, McNally, Wold, Ward, Mills, Smith, Greiner, Odell, Mansfield, Brown and McMinnimy.

"Redding also dropped 16 jumpers on the fire, and it was controlled at about 160 acres. All the jumpers dropped on a ridge above the fire. 16 Jump- ers went down each side of the fire and stopped it from becoming a monster."

Wes continues: "The account jogged my memory. This lightning fire, jumped on a hot and windy afternoon, was located in steep brushy terrain in the Klamath River drainage. Considering the youth of the firefighters and the spirit of the times, it isn't too surprising that the crews' effort turned into a virtual fireline construction race between the Redding and Siskiyou jumper crews. Just imagine, jumpers, aided by retardant drops, cutting lines from ridgetop to the creek at the bottom in a single afternoon. Quick response, less smoke! Jumpers away."

Second Way To Save A Billion $$

Station a Fire Boss aircraft on every forest. Actually, the Fire Boss aircraft are most effective working in pairs--that will be the subject of a future article. The move is to Large Air Tankers (LATS). I want to counter that thought with the idea that keeping a fire small is less expensive than fighting one of these multi-million dollar fires that are occurring annually on a regular basis. That is a really tough thing to do. If you put out a fire at two acres, how do you prove that it would have become a multi-million $$ fire if 'let burn'? Common sense would tell you that, but look at the budget--less money in 2020 for forest management and more money for fighting wildfire.

I have become an advocate of the Fire Boss aircraft or the Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT). Here's an introduction: 800 gallon tank, quick loading, can scoop reload in 45 seconds from water source, 3.5 -hour fuel endurance--contract cost $4,500 per day plus $4,500 per hour flight time when in use--more than twice the carrying capacity of a medium helicopter--dispatched from airport loaded with retardant or water, remain 3+ hours at the fire scooping water from nearby source--can upload up to 20 loads (13,000 gallons) per hour depending upon suitable scooping source--the 20 loads/hour are more than a single load DC-10.

Even better than that, I heard from Brett L'Espereance (Dauntless Air) an amazing accounting of a Fire Boss on a fire in Alaska: "Last week in Alaska, we set a new record for a 3.5 hour fuel cycle - 107 drops with a Fire Boss! That equates to roughly 70,000 gallons in 3.5 hours. At $4,500 per flight hour, that boils down to $0.23 per gallon--less than a quarter!"

Every state in the Western U.S. has multiple water sources where a Fire Boss can reload in less than a minute. I'm primarily talking to smokejumpers. Can you imagine having one of these aircraft working with you for over three hours on a hot fire? We didn't have it in our days. Now there is the potential to do this!

From the old days to the new days, smokejumpers fly the forest after a lightning storm. They jump fires a few hours after they start. They have a Fire Boss that can fly low and slow, working with them if needed. The fire does not become a multi-million dollar fire but just a single page fire report. We have just saved almost a billion dollars with this concept per season. Remember, managing or putting out a fire is just a fraction of the expenses related to a large fire.

Now, we get to the point. Who gives a darn? The money is there and increasing annually. Big fires are big business. Let's look at the Large Air Tanker (LAT) business. They go in the ballpark of $20,000 to $35,000 a day, PLUS $10,000 to $18,000 per flight hour. They make a great show for the evening news. That 747 dropping retardant on the fires in the Napa Valley a couple years ago probably made thousands of viewers have a feeling of relief. Since I could not even see the fire, I thought this might have been one of those drops to make the public feel safe. That single drop might have funded a SEAT for a whole season on a forest. Where are we going?

The public is being brainwashed. The LAT business will continue to grow in spite of some practical thinking that only those who jumped fires will know. Rapid initial attack will save money, lives, resources and time. Money spent on prepositioning of resources will do the job, but we are conditioned to spend vast amounts of dollars on fighting the beast rather then killing the beast at birth.

Bottom line: Be prepared in the years to come to see a vast increase in money spent in fighting wildfire and a decrease in the amount spent in preventing wildfire--react to the disaster rather than prevent the disaster. Isn't that the American Way?

The important point is that with some com- mon sense, we could prevent these disastrous wildfires.


I didn't know what I was getting into when I started on this piece for this issue. Air tankers are a big business--don't even question them! I didn't know what I was stepping into--pretty deep.

I hope that I got the information correct as I went to Bill Gabbert's Fire & Aviation News. He averaged the rates for three models of large air tankers (BAe-146, RJ85, and C-130) and he came up with $30,150 as a daily rate--that means standing by. If used, there is an additional $7,601 hourly rate. The Single Engine Air Tankers, like the Fire Boss, run about $4,500 daily rate plus $4,500 additional per flight hour.

Back to the common citizen: It looks like we could have six Fire Boss aircraft stationed around the forest for every LAT. Wow--Shazam! We have a lightning storm hit the area and have over 7,000 strikes starting multiple fires. What do we do?

We ponder that the LAT carries a very large load and needs a long takeoff and landing runway. It is located many miles from the fire. Due to the expense, the people on the fire do not want to call in a LAT when the fire is just a snag and one acre.

No SEATs On Contract?

I had a heck of a time finding information on USFS air tanker contracts. You joke about the closed society in Communist China. You should try to get information from anyone currently working for the Forest Service. Please refer to my article on the hiring system in the Oct. 2018 issue of Smokejumper. Even our PhD's couldn't translate the jibble I got.

I finally found out that the USFS has only a single SEAT on contract. The rest are LATs.

Let's go back to the common sense point of view. Wouldn't it be better to have six Fire Boss aircraft spread out around the forests vs LATs based at large airports miles away? As a jumper, I would love to have the advantage of an aircraft that could work a fire with me for over three hours, depending upon the water source. Regardless of the water source, six aircraft could certainly work more fires that one aircraft. Is that thinking too far out of the box? Makes sense to me.

What does your local fire department do to cover your city? Do they build a single large facil- ity with the best of resources in the middle of the city? No! As a city expands, fire stations are added so that the response time is cut to a minimum.

Let's compare that to the USFS response. LATs are located at airports where they have long run- ways. Fire Boss aircraft can be spread out over the forests in locations with smaller runways. A lightning storm comes through and there are 7,000 strikes that start 25 fires. Common sense question: Can multiple Fire Boss aircraft stationed on the forests react to a fire quicker than a few LATs located at a large airport? Would a forest even call an expensive LAT for a single snag fire?

The big problem is that these single-snag fires develop into multi-million dollar fires, as exhib- ited by the Whetstone Ridge/Myers Fire and the Lolo Peak Fire in Montana. A load of jumpers and local Fire Boss aircraft could have turned a hundred million $$ expense into a single page fire One more thought for you: If the USFS only report.

From Troy Kurth (FBX-62): "When we did a study on the use of SEATs, we found two SEATs at Missoula were effective initial attack out to a 60 mile radius. We also had more than adequate airports to place two SEATs with 30 minute IA at the outer ring. The cost of SEATs verses large tankers favored the SEATs for IA. Most important, our five LATs were always pulled when the fire danger was the highest to go to a large fire. We then lost the initial attack advantage of air attack.

"The effective early attack of two SEATs crossing on the fire WITH THE INTENT OF REMOVING HEAT was superior to the large 3,000-gal airtanker within 30 minutes of dispatch.

"I rode aircraft many hours as an Air Attack Boss--both IA and large fires. I recall many IA fires knocked down with two F7F 800-gal tankers that held fast till a ground crew arrived."

Safety of SEATs and Fire Boss Aircraft

I hear that the USFS does not contract SEATs and Fire Boss aircraft because of the safety issue--single engine vs multi-engines. Show me the statistics that prove that the multi-engine air tankers are safer than SEATs! We all have worked fires--the SEATs are basically a modified crop duster. Which aircraft can fly low and slow and hit that hotspot?

I've just been editing a book by Lee Gossett (RDD-57), who flew thousands of hours in the Pilatus Porter in Laos. There could not have been a more challenging job. Runways on side hills, runways going up, runways going down--add to that someone shooting at you. Single engine dangerous, not dependable--BS! Talk to Lee who has spent thousands of hours in them. If any Cal Fire or contract pilots want to debate the dependability of the single-engine aircraft, let's sit down with Lee over a couple Sierra Nevada Torpedo beers and discuss the issue. I know dropping on fires is very dangerous but compare that with a similar situation while taking ground fire from the Pathet Lao.

One more thought for you: If the USFS only contracts LATs, doesn't that mean they are preparing for large fires? Who would want to spend $50,000 on a lightning-struck snag? Speaking of lightning-struck snags, the Lolo and Whetstone Ridge Fires (MT) were spotted and reported as such--what we would call, in the old days, a two-manner. $80 million and 116,000 acres later. What the heck, it's only your money.

From John Finnertry (Assoc.): "There are more important parameters than gallons per hour, especially in initial attack and direct attack. LATs have maneuverability limitations that limit accuracy in steep terrain and smokey conditions. Their massive loads are often used effectively for indirect attack. LATs are a good 'box' fire tool.

"Initial attack often requires precision drops in a timely manner. Many small but frequent drops seem to benefit initial attack greatly. SEATs are much more maneuverable than LATs and can therefore deliver more precise drops more frequently. Helicop ters can deal with terrain, smoke, and wind better than SEATs. Helicopters may carry smaller loads, so turnaround time is always an issue.

"A concern that I have in using LATs on initial attack is they will most likely split their loads into small increments. This will block the airspace for an extended period of time while they take multiple passes. This will delay all other initial attack aircraft that may be more useful in the initial attack environment."

Are There Unknowns With Air Tankers--Follow the money.

First--we have the safety issue, which is a smoke screen. Let's get back to the movie "Jerry McGuire." Tom Cruise (Jerry McGuire): "Show me the money." Cuba Gooding (Rod Tidwell sports agent): "I wanna make sure you're ready, brother. Here it is: Show me the money. Oh-ho-ho! SHOW! ME! THE! MONEY! A-ha-ha! Jerry, doesn't it make you feel good just to say that! Say it with me one time, Jerry."

From a source: "The USFS is heavily lobbied by the retardant manufacturer out there (there is only one globally) and the Large Air Tanker operators.

The big guys spend a lot of time in D.C. Aero Flite, the largest LAT operator in the U.S. (almost $80M in revenues and a lot of large retardant dropping aircraft) is actually the U.S. subsidiary of ConAir, the dominant aerial firefighting company north of the border. Those profits go back to Canadians, not Americans."

How many retired Cal Fire, USFS are working for the airtanker industry? I don't know. It hap- pens everywhere. Retired personnel go to work for the industry. What is better after retiring than to become a part of their business?

Here is a personal example. When I was running 10-13 fire crews for the Mendocino N.F. in the 80s, I had local bus contractors for my crews. Over a period of time, larger contactors, with a lot money backing them, moved in and took over the operation. My local bus contractors went out of business. Big money vs local small business-- guess who is going to win?

What I saw was that high-level retired USFS employees were working for the large bus contrac- tors that shut down my local operators. As Jerry McGuire said, "Show me the money." Back to the common sense: Can you see what is going on in the air tanker business?

Airtankers--A Good Expenditure Or A Show For The Public?

The following comes from an ex-smokejumper who has moved on into the air attack end of wildfire. He will remain anonymous as many of my sources are still working in the business.

"In my current position, I fly as many ex- tended attack fires on federal land as I do on state protection. The Federal Leadplane program is disintegrating due to a variety of factors related to an apathetic, top-heavy bureaucracy. Their current group of pilots are retiring or leaving for other positions faster than they can hire and train replacements.

"I get to work a lot of Federal fires, and I can't hardly believe how absurd they have become. It's mostly just a big show for the media. They spend $3 million a day now and, I bet, less than one percent of that goes to actual line construction. They have become so 'risk adverse,' they hardly engage anymore. They would be better off taking the entire fire budget and spend it on aggressive Initial Attack.

"This will be my 43rd consecutive fire season and, as much as I have enjoyed it, I am becoming more pessimistic about the future of wildland firefighting. There are plenty of great folks out there giving it their best effort, but they are so outnumbered by apathetic beauracrats. It is almost impossible for them to become successful."

Third Way To Save A Billion $$

I've done several articles on the 'Klump Pump,' invented by Jim Klump (RDD-64). Here is a tool, completely ignored by the USFS, that could save thousands of acres, make firefighters safe, and reduce the outrageous expenses of our annual wildfires.

A review: As Jim says, "This machine, when you look at it, is a 'no-brainer.' It's a Type II engine without a chassis. The 1,000-gallon capacity, 2,200-foot hose complement and fitting complement fit the Type II engine classification. The decision to use a machine, such as this, is also very simple. If an incident decision-maker asks him/herself, 'If I can get a conventional engine on this, would I?' If he or she can't, the logical solution then is another 'no-brainer' - order Klump Pumps!

"They are delivered to an incident on either two- or three-unit trailers. They are unloaded at the helibase, and setup takes 20-30 minutes per machine. The leveling jacks are attached. Hose, fittings, and support equipment are stowed into their compartment for air transport. The lifting harness is fixed to the four lifting points. The machine was designed aerodynamically. It remains quite stable in flight at 80 knots. Once delivered out to the line, it's a matter of a few minutes to level, begin filling, and deploy hose lines."

Back to you as smokejumpers--just think of the potential of putting out fires if you had 1,000 gallons of water, replenished by a helicopter, com- ing down the hill through a hose lay that could be expanded multiple times. You have constant air attack, if needed, by locally located Fire Boss aircraft. Think you could stop these megafires if given the chance of rapid initial attack?

The Answers Are All There-- Does Anyone Care?

We have the tools, the personnel, and the know-how to cut our annual wildfire expenditure and loss of forests. The key: Do we have the leadership to do the job? It doesn't look like it. The current leadership shies away from rapid IA in many cases. They say the hills are too steep, working at night is too dangerous (we actually know better), and on and on. What do they say--excuses are like----------, everyone has one.

Michael Rains has done an excellent article in this issue. Wildfire smoke is now a public health issue. We spend months under smoke from fires that could have been prevented by rapid initial attack. The USFS looks at it another way--they are meeting their annual burn requirements.

What they are missing in that equation is that while they may meet their burn requirements by 'managing' wildfire, they are killing thousands of our citizens with the smoke they have put into our air.

Whenever we lose a firefighter on a fire, it becomes an event of national importance. No one wants to lose a life. But if 40,000 people die 18-20 years down the line from the constant layer of smoke over our communities, it is an unknown and forgotten.

My fellow teacher and coach was a Vietnam Marine. He died 25 years after the war from brain cancer. Wonder if there was a connection between that and the amount of Agent Orange he was doused with?

Same with the amount of smoke you are breathing each summer. It won't get you today, this year, but down the line our healthcare budget will be bankrupted by treatment for lung disease, and the death rate from these fires will not be acknowledged.

The new fire triangle:

1. Smokejumpers for rapid initial attack--actually doesn't have to be smokejumpers. The fastest resource to reach the fire is the answer.

2. Many Fire Boss aircraft stationed on forests. Less money than the LATs and quicker response. Six Fire Boss aircraft for the cost of one LAT--which resource could cover the most fires?

3. The Klump Pump--a tool that should change the way we fight fires in inaccessible areas. I could name multiple fires that could have been stopped at the early stage, but one stands out.

The Chetco Bar Fire

The Chetco Bar Fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area of the Siskiyou N.F. burned over 191,000 acres and cost many millions. This fire was covered in the October 2018 issue of Smoke- jumper. As smokejumpers, you scratch your head when you hear the rappeller crew didn't go down to the fire because the hill was "too steep and the leaves too slippery." We all know that in our experiences that excuse would have gotten us fired. Apparently, that is acceptable nowadays.

There is a citizens group in Brookings, Oregon, that has brought a lawsuit against the USFS for their handling of this fire. At this time, I do not know all the details. But I have heard that fire personnel went on to private land and started a burnout on their property.

There are many factors here. An airline pilot discovered the fire 17 days after its start. Since the USFS had shut down lookouts, why wasn't the area flown after the lightning storm? It is almost like this fire was 'wanted.'

The Kalmiopsis Wilderness has burned many times since the 2002 Biscuit Fire. The USFS standpoint: Wilderness fires are natural and should be let-burn. This reduces the fuel load. If that is correct, why have we had a billion $$ in fire in the Kalmiopsis since the Biscuit Fire? If these fires are natural, why spend a billion $$ fighting them? Answer: It is your money.

From Quentin Rhoades (MSO-89) who has represented people making a claim against the USFS and their current wildfire policies:

"We, the public, are supposed to understand that Global Climate Disruption is making wildfire more frequent and more intense in the American West. We are supposed to understand that the increase in urban/wildland interface makes wildfire of greater economic and human risk. We know that megafires release catastrophic amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. And we now know, from bitter experience, that megafires leave in their wake arid deserts incapable, among other things, of meaningful carbon sequestration.

"Since these are the facts, then why are forest managers not becoming MORE aggressive with Initial Attack instead of LESS so? Why are they not using more smokejumpers and heli-rappellers instead of fewer? If there are going to be more wildfires than ever and the risks associated with wildfires--including the development of megafires--are greater than ever, then why NOT use the most aggressive Initial Attack strategies and tactics possible to keep the costs, risks, and impacts of wildfires in this new era as small as possible?

"The answer is simple. The problem is a moral one. In fact, the once proud USFS has lost its for- titude and abandoned its former dauntless will to implement effective Initial Attack. Its loss of courage comes at just the wrong moment in history, when the costs and risks associated with wildfire are now greater than ever before. USFS stewardship was once characterized by a clear-eyed determination to fight wildfire with aggressive and effective means and intent. The 10:00 a.m. Rule was not a policy of the weak. Now is the time for it to recover its lost strength and do its job: protect the resource--and the public.

"I urge anyone who is studying this issue to take a hike, a drive through or a low-level flyover of the megafire area of the Silver Fire (1987), the Biscuit Fire (2002), and the Chetco Bar Fire (2017), as I did recently (Siskiyou NF). It's a moonscape. Hundreds of thousands of acres of new desert existing in a formerly lush temperate region, right in the middle of SW Oregon, created on behalf of the public by federal land managers. Such man-made environmental devastation ought to yield some tangible benefit in trade-off, as an open-pit mine yields minerals for electric car batteries or a cleared rainforest results in space to grow coffee beans. Here, the devastated landscape yields nothing. A site visit will raise your consciousness like no words ever could."

The movement for change is starting to form. It may take a long time to make this change. Contact your congressperson and local politicians. Let's go back to a good forest management plan.