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The Reason We Don’t Have Enough Airplanes to Put Out Wildfires

Slate logo Slate 8/28/2021 Aaron Mak
a large air plane on a train track with smoke coming out of it: A DC-10 firefighting jet drops fire retardant on the northern flank of a wildfire on Nov. 16, 2008, near Diamond Bar and Chino Hills, California. David McNew/Getty Images © Provided by Slate A DC-10 firefighting jet drops fire retardant on the northern flank of a wildfire on Nov. 16, 2008, near Diamond Bar and Chino Hills, California. David McNew/Getty Images

When the White House gathered a group of governors late last month to discuss this year’s devastating wildfire season, California Gov. Gavin Newsom used his time with the president to share a lament. The country, he explained, simply did not have enough planes capable of dousing infernos. Specifically, it had too few DC-10 air tankers, jumbo-sized crafts only four of which are currently available nationwide. “We do not come close to having the tools in the air that we need,” he said.

“We have four DC-10s, Mr. President. Four,” Newsom, whose state is currently on pace for a year of record destruction from fire, exclaimed. “And we’re competing.  They’re all contracted.  We compete with you. We compete with other states. We don’t even have access right now to DC-10s.” The governor continued his plea for more of the jets into August.

America’s fleet of air tankers has been spread thin for years now. Despite some recent attempts to rebuild it, the number of planes under federal contract has shrunk by 59 percent since 2002. And with wildfire season starting earlier and burning more intensely each year across the West, states like California are worried about having access to the tools they need to combat the flames.

Unfortunately, growing the fleet isn’t a simple task. A closer examination of the logistics around commissioning and deploying DC-10s, a powerful aerial firefighting tool, shows why.

The DC-10 was originally manufactured in the 1970s for commercial flights, though several high-profile crashes throughout the decade earned it an early reputation in the public eye as a “death trap.” Though its initial design flaws were fixed and its safety record improved, public confidence in the DC-10 never recovered. After airlines mothballed the planes, companies in other sectors found that their massive size was useful for hauling mail and dumping retardant on wildfires. (The plane has lived on in pop culture primarily thanks to a reference in the Clash’s classic 1979 song “Spanish Bombs.”)

DC-10s stand more than four stories tall and measure 180 feet in length. They can carry about three times more water or fire retardant than most other large air tankers, which usually have a 3,000-gallon capacity, and nine times as much as smaller ones, which typically have a 1,000-gallon capacity. “We’re bringing 9,400 gallons to the party,” said Ryan Curl, a pilot with the aerial firefighting company 10 Tanker who’s been flying DC-10s since 2018. The planes, he explains, save both time and money by flying that tremendous amount of retardant to the scene all at once, whereas smaller planes have to go back and forth for refills. “If you really want to put a lot of fire out in a hurry, order the DC-10,” he said. “We equate it to the sledgehammer in the tool box.”

Though DC-10s are more often called in for larger fires, they’re particularly effective for stopping nascent ones in their tracks. “I think where we truly shine is on the initial attack, the early stages of fighting a fire,” said Curl. “If we can get in there and surround the fire with retardant and shut it down for the guys on the ground, giving them a chance to keep it down while it’s small, that’s the best-case scenario for everybody.”

But while DC-10s are coveted for fighting wildfires, only five have been retrofitted to carry retardant, and one of them is already retired. They’re all built and owned by 10 Tanker, which contracts them out to various government agencies. Two of those four active DC-10s have been under consecutive exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service since 2017, which means that the agency pays in advance to use the planes for a certain amount of time, whether or not they actually end up being needed.

The other two DC-10s are up for grabs every year for anyone else who might need them during the fire season. Cal Fire, California’s fire protection department, tried to get ahold of one of these other two planes over the summer, but they had both already been snatched up by the Forest Service for use nationwide, which is partly why Newsom has been raising his concerns.

“This year, the Forest Service picked them up for 90 days relatively early, because they could see there was a drought and they had the money,” said John Gould, president and CEO of 10 Tanker. “The problem that [Cal Fire] had this year is that they didn’t have any money until the 1st of July—the beginning of their fiscal year—but by that time our airplanes had already been picked up. … It hasn’t historically been a problem.” The Forest Service has now activated all of the privately owned large air tankers in the country, leaving none directly available for local departments.

A spokesperson for Cal Fire said that the lack of available DC-10 contracts is not currently affecting wildfire efforts, since the department works closely with the Forest Service in deploying the planes to California, though she noted such contracts would have given the state first dibs for using the planes. A spokesperson for Newsom further told Slate that, after his calls for increased aerial support, the Department of Defense provided California with three additional C-130 military transport aircrafts that have been equipped with portable fire retardant delivery systems. Fire protection agencies will often ask the military for assistance when there aren’t more contracted air tankers available.

Though the U.S. might be able to make do with its small fleet for the moment with some help from the military, experts I spoke to said the country will likely need more DC-10s to fight wildfires in the future as climate change continues to extend and multiply droughts. There’s some debate over whether air tankers actually help all that much once the blaze grows to its maximum size, and the retardant can harm wildlife by polluting waterways, though most experts seem to agree that the planes are the best tool for getting a fire under control at least in the early stages.

Expanding the fleet doesn’t make much sense for 10 Tanker at the moment, however, due to the nature of the government contracts.

“Yeah, sure, we could use another DC-10. But the real question for us is: Can they get enough contracts out there for it to be economically feasible for us to do that?” said Gould. “That means a contract that I know I can get next year, instead of rolling the dice every year. They’re expensive machines to run.” Turning a regular DC-10 into an air tanker takes about a year and is a costly process that involves essentially rebuilding parts of the plane so it can handle the stress of carrying a tank at the bottom. According to Gould, fickle annual contracts do not provide enough financial stability for the company to budget the time and money necessary for retrofitting planes.

Getting more aircraft is also only half the battle; if the government wants a larger fleet of DC-10s, it will need to help build out new infrastructure to support the planes as well.

For instance, there is currently a jet fuel shortage, due to pipeline capacity issues, that threatens to hamper firefighting efforts in the coming months; even with a bigger fleet, there likely needs to be a better system for transporting fuel. In addition, there would need to be more space at air bases to house such massive planes. “It’s a big airplane, and airport space is always at a premium,” said James Kunkle, president of the Central Coast Jet Center, which is one of only three bases in California that can handle a DC-10. “Someone said we should have 50 of them—that would be problematic because Cal Fire and the Forest Service would have to actually figure out where you’re going to put them all.”

Finding enough pilots able to operate a DC-10 and other air tankers is an issue too. Due in part to the plane’s size and particular use in firefighting contexts, flying a DC-10 requires significant training that includes demanding evaluations and trial periods. Thus, capable pilots are few and far between. “I can’t just go to Southwest Airlines and say, ‘Hey, give me one of your pilots so I can plug them into my DC-10 and send them out to the fire,’ ” said Gould. The lifestyle also tends to be taxing and unpredictable, perhaps more akin to that of a firefighter than an airline pilot, which can also be a tough sell for recruiting.

“We spend a lot of time out on the road away from home, and the lifestyle we live just isn’t for everybody,” Curl said. “You may be away from home for up to a couple hundred nights in the course of a season.”

Commissioning more DC-10s isn’t the only way to expand the country’s fleet of air tankers. Bill Gabbert, who runs the Fire Aviation and Wildfire Today blogs, contends that it might be a mistake to focus solely on the massive jets, since other smaller crafts tend to be more useful for different terrains, like narrow canyons, and it’s never a good idea to rely on only one model due to potential mechanical defects. He points out that there’s an overall shortage of air tankers in the U.S. There used to be a fleet of 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts in 2002, which were mostly constructed out of World War II bombers. However, two of those tankers crashed that year, which resulted in many others being taken out of commission. Since then, private companies like 10 Tanker have been trying to retrofit newer planes to build the nation’s fleet back up, but there are still only 18 under exclusive use contracts as of this year.

But no matter what type of air tankers it chooses, Gabbert said, the government will probably have to rethink its approach to contracting if it wants a bigger fleet. He thinks the solution is for Congress to appropriate funds for 10-year exclusive use contracts, which would allow manufacturers to more easily get the millions of dollars in loans they need from a bank to build more tankers and the associated support systems. “If they can get a guaranteed 10-year contract, they can see in advance that they can make the investment pay off, and the bank will be happy to lend them money,” Gabbert said. “Congress just does not understand the severity of the issue.”

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