Aerial Firefighting Capacity Declines as Wildfires Grow

C-130 air tanker dropping water: Technical Sergeant Rick Sforza, United States Air Force, via Wikimedia CommonsC-130 air tanker dropping water: Technical Sergeant Rick Sforza, United States Air Force, via Wikimedia CommonsThe US Air Force, which grounded the remaining seven of its eight C-130 air tankers after a crash in South Dakota on Sunday, has cleared the fleet to fly again today.

The downed C-130 was from an Air National Guard wing in Charlotte, North Carolina. Four of six crew members are confirmed killed, reports MSNBC.

The Air Force C-130s are are called upon when US Forest Service can’t adequately fight wildfires with private and commercial fleets. This year all eight Air Force tankers were activated simultaneously to fight wildfires in the West. The last time that happened was in 2008.

Current large wildlfires underway in the US: USDACurrent large wildfires underway in the US (click here for larger version): USDA

You can see in the map above the location of large fires in the US as of 03 July 2012. Until the seven remaining USAF C-130s get back online, all 55 of these fires will be sharing 14 civilian air tankers for air support.

That’s a sharp decline in aerial firefighting resources since a decade ago when 44 tankers were devoted to firefighting. Today only nine air tankers are flown exclusively on US Forest Service contracts, reports the Guardian:

President Barack Obama signed a bill last month hastening the addition of seven large tanker planes to the nation’s rundown aerial firefighting fleet, at a cost of $24m, but the first planes won’t be available until mid-August.

Further hampering the US fleet, another aerial firefighting plane, a Lockheed P2V, crashed in Utah recently, killing two pilots. Another crash-landed in Nevada with no loss of life.

 

Fire probability maps based on ensemble models of mean change (click for larger version): Max A. Mortiz, et al, EcosphereFire maps showing mean change (A, C) and degree of model agreement (B, D) for the periods 2010-2039 (top) and 2070-2099 (bottom). Click for larger version: Max A. Moritz, et al, Ecosphere Meanwhile a paper published last month in Exosphere, the open-access, peer-reviewed journal of the Ecological Society of America, forecasts big increases in wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere this century as global temperatures continue to rise.

As you can see in the map above (image D), the intermountain West of North America, large portions of Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, northern Scandinavia, plus most of Central Asia and Siberia are predicted to suffer 90 percent more fires between 2077 and 2099. Most of the rest of the Northern hemisphere is forecast to experience 66 percent more wildfires.

High Park Wildfire, Colorado: The National Guard via FlickrHigh Park Wildfire, Colorado: The National Guard via FlickrThe two trends—declining aerial firefighting capacity and increasing wildfires—makes for a highly combustible future.

Toss in the match from a recent paper in PNAS showing how wildfire suppression in the American West beginning in the 20th century created a monster build-up of combustible fuels, combined with a spread of fire-prone species and increased tree mortality from insects and warming temperatures…

Well, it looks like we’re in danger of losing control of “the control of fire”—the only thing that truly separated us from other animals in our early evolution.

I wrote more about the PNAS paper here.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.