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Type: Conference Paper
Author(s): Crystal S. Stonesifer; Matthew P. Thompson; David E. Calkin; Charles W. McHugh
Editor(s): Robert E. Keane II; W. Matt Jolly; Russell A. Parsons; Karin L. Riley
Publication Date: 2015

The appropriate role of large airtankers (LATs) in federal fire suppression in the United States has been the source of much debate and discussion in recent years as the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has faced impending decisions about how best to address an aging fleet of contracted aircraft. Questions of fleet efficiency are complicated by inadequacies in historical data on airtanker use. A need for improved data collection systems for LATs was a key recommendation to come from a 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation into actions made by the USFS and the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) regarding fleet modernization. Our research has also identified deficiencies in data collection regarding LAT use in federal fire suppression, particularly with respect to capturing the objectives and outcomes of individual retardant drops. Using spatially-explicit drop location data from 2010 and 2011 for the conterminous U.S., we linked retardant drops to fire occurrence and resource ordering records to identify whether LATs were used during initial attack (IA), and if so, whether or not the fire was contained at the IA phase. Our analysis showed that despite federal policy stating that the priority for use is on IA, 43% of drops from 2010 and 2011 occurred during extended attack (EA) operations. In addition, containment rates of fires associated with LAT use are low; 75% of all IA drops were on fires that escaped IA containment efforts. We expand on this by incorporating drop data from 2012. Further, in order to qualify where and when drops occur, we explicitly characterize the conditions of use for all drops, particularly with respect to terrain, fuels, time of day, weather, and proximity to identified values at risk and areas of restricted retardant use. Preliminary results suggest that approximately 35% of drops occurred in late afternoon (1500 - 1800 hours) and over 30% of all drops intersect with timber fuel models from the LANDFIRE dataset. Here we will elaborate on these results and discuss the potential implications related to the use of LATs in fire management operations.

Online Links
Citation: Stonesifer, Crystal S.; Thompson, Matthew P.; Calkin, David E.; McHugh, Charles W. 2015. Characterizing large airtanker use in United States fire management. Pages 314-316. In: Keane, Robert E.; Jolly, Matt; Parsons, Russell; Riley, Karin (editors). Proceedings of the large wildland fires conference; May 19-23, 2014; Missoula, MT. Proceedings RMRS-P-73. Fort Collins, CO: USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Cataloging Information

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  • air drop
  • airtanker
  • extended attack
  • fire management
  • fire suppression
  • IA - initial attack
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Record Maintained By: FRAMES Staff (
FRAMES Record Number: 24530