Government or contract? Aerial firefighting around the world
Robin Gauldie looks at the different approaches to short-term and respond-as-needed aerial firefighting contracts around the world
More frequent, bigger blazes and longer fire seasons that put pressure on the firefighting of government agencies mean greater demand for the flexibility of private operators, but as global fire seasons merge, it’s getting tougher for assets to be shifted around on demand.
“Areas which used to experience peak fire times on different months now have longer and overlapping seasons, with all air assets busy in their contracted region and unable to respond to other regions when called,” said Jeff Berry, Director of Business Development at Canadian operator Conair.
“The key selling point of short-term or respond-as-needed contracts is availability of the airtanker and crew for the requested time period,” Berry pointed out. “A government agency is not going to receive cost-effective operations using short-term solutions. They will often be lucky to find an airtanker when they need it if they go looking after the emergency hits. Large regions of the world have the same fire seasons. It then basically becomes a competition for scarce resources, and agencies who have invested in long-term contracts, or their own fleets, will be best prepared.”
The heat is on
Mike Rotonda, Aerial Firefighting Manager at Portland, Oregon-based Erickson, agreed. “There is an increasing demand for firefighting aircraft worldwide, due to warmer, drier conditions,” he said. “Summers are getting hotter and drier, while also lasting longer. We are seeing wildfires in areas that historically do not experience these conditions. For example, there were major wildfires in Northern Europe and Northern Alaska last summer. “We still have the capacity to respond, but there may come a time when demand outstrips the [supply of] available aircraft,” Rotonda warned.
He also puts the case that respond-on-demand contracts can cost government agencies more than exclusive commitments.
There is an increasing demand for firefighting aircraft worldwide, due to warmer, drier conditions
“There’s no doubt that exclusive-use contracts are better for the government and industry, as the aircraft is already on contract and can be positioned to meet the changing needs of the wildfire situation,” he argued. “On the other hand, call-when-needed contracts do not offer any guarantees and are therefore more expensive to the government and, ultimately, the taxpayer.”
In EU countries, 2022 was a record-breaking year for wildfires. According to the European Commission (EC) Joint Research Centre’s Annual Report on Forest Fires in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, published in October 2022, more than 8,600km2 of land was burned across the EU before the end of summer 2022, compared with 5,500km2 in 2021.
In 2021, the EU strengthened its Civil Protection Mechanism, which can step in when national firefighting resources are overwhelmed, to increase the aerial firefighting resources it offers to member countries – responding to 11 requests by six countries for planes, helicopters and firefighters. The program has been beefed up further in anticipation of even more requests for assistance in 2023.
Governments at a crossroads
Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Croatia are Europe’s most fire-prone countries, according to the EC. Parts of the US, Canada, Australia and South America are also suffering more and bigger wildfire outbreaks. Australia’s bushfire season now lasts for 130 days a year, lengthening by almost a month in the past four decades.
Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Croatia are Europe’s most fire-prone countries
Countries facing the greatest immediate threat are currently scrambling to build up their defenses, and in some cases reduce dependence on outside contractors.
Within the EU, governments clearly see action – sometimes across national borders – as key. In July, EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarcic, highlighted plans for the EU to finance an expanded pan-European firefighting fleet of aircraft that will technically be owned by member states.
After a devastating 2021 fire season, Greece opted for 2022 to maintain its strategy of reinforcing the Hellenic Fire Service’s permanent fleet of around 60 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, with aircraft sourced through NATO’s Security and Procurement Agency (NSPA). In November, though, the Greek government issued a €145 million tender for 36 amphibious firefighting aircraft, to create a new, expanded fleet of its own. Greece seems likely to choose the Air Tractor AT-802 Fire Boss – a type already used over several Greek seasons – as its workhorse, with 12 aircraft to be delivered within two years of contract signing (expected in 2023) and the remainder over the next four years.
France is spending €250 million to replace and expand the 12-strong fleet of Canadair airtankers operated by the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Civile civil defence agency by the end of 2027, in what President Emmanuel Macron called an ‘emergency air rearmament’, in response to a run of severe fire seasons.
The private sector has historically played a significant part in European firefighting operations, notably Spain, Portugal and Italy. Babcock has been a major player in all three countries for more than a decade, operating a fully outsourced aerial firefighting service for Italy – including managing and operating a fleet of 19 CL-415 aircraft from 10 Italian bases – since 2011. In Spain – where responsibility for firefighting is devolved to regional communities – the private sector is also significant, with Babcock previously providing coverage in the Canary Islands and Valencia-based Titan Aerial Firefighting serving regional authorities, including Catalunya, with its fleet of Air Tractor AT-802 airtankers. Last year, Babcock announced the sale of its aerial emergency services divisions in all the countries as part of a ‘portfolio alignment program’, and it remains to be seen whether another private sector operator will step in to take up these contracts in the long term.
Increasingly, though, some EU member states seem to be putting faith in intervention at a national and supranational level, and it looks like national firefighting agencies will continue to shoulder much of the burden in European countries, increasingly in cross-border partnerships.
It looks like national firefighting agencies will continue to shoulder much of the burden in European countries
Elsewhere, the picture is mixed, with multiple roles for private operators. In the US, Erickson – which has been providing firefighting services in Southern California since 2008 – has won a five-year contract with the City of Los Angeles to provide a further S-64 helicopter, equipped with Erickson’s 2,650-gallon fire suppression system. In December, Canadian company Coulson Aviation – which completed its third year of firefighting operations on behalf of three local agencies in Chile in 2022 – inked a four-year contract with the Western Australia government for a C-130H Hercules Airtanker, already dispatched to Australia in time for a 2023 bushfire season that Western Australia Emergency Services Minister, Stephen Dawson, has warned will be ‘unpredictable and potentially devastating’.
“Australia is a distant market to many overseas providers, so we see an increasing reliance on locally based operators leading the way with maintaining year-round capacity to react to bushfires, seasons of which are getting longer and merging with those of the Northern Hemisphere,” said Ray Cronin, Managing Director of Mangalore, Victoria-based Kestrel Aviation. “This is why Australian operators like Kestrel Aviation play such an important part in providing assets to state-based agencies, through contracting arrangements with the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, to provide year-round coverage,” he added. Kestrel is awaiting delivery of the second of a planned fleet of tank-fitted Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, expected to be in service for the next Australian fire season. The first was delivered in February 2021.
Also in 2021, Canadian operator Conair signed a ground-breaking contract which will lead to a year-round presence in Australia, when a new $5 million maintenance facility for its Q400AT (Dash 8-400AT) airtankers at Ballarat, Victoria, is completed. Providing for a 168-day minimum standby per season, shared between the states of Victoria and Queensland, the four-year deal is a first step towards creating a ‘sovereign’ aerial firefighting fleet for Australia, reducing its reliance on aircraft ferried from Canada or the US.
A team effort
Canadian provinces have long shared aerial firefighting resources, along with Alaska and Northwestern US states, Berry pointed out. This model is changing as fire seasons become longer, and state and private sectors adapt to ensure resources are available when needed. Berry cited Washington state’s recent commitment to its first long-term, multi-year contract for two Dash 8-400Ats and two CL415s through Conair US subsidiary, Aero-Flite Inc. Long-term, multi-year contracts, he said, benefit both government agencies and private operators.
“They provide the government agency with the security of having the resource available when needed, with the agency able to forecast spend into the future, avoiding costly surprises. Long-term contracts also provide economies of scale to government agencies,” he explained.
These contracts have other benefits, claimed Berry, such as Conair’s specialized aerial firefighting mission training system for its own pilots and partner agency air attack officers. Conair has invested $20 million in the system, offering it to all government customers. “While the program is not cost-effective for one government on its own, they can reap the benefits through partnership with a private organization. These economies of scale apply to a wide variety of services; from aerospace engineering through avionics, maintenance, component repairs and so on,” he said.
Long-term contracts can also help government agencies address the issue of ageing equipment, Berry added, with a large number of airtankers worldwide nearing the end of serviceable life – just as demand for such aircraft is likely to soar.
“The security and flexibility of a long-term contract means a private operator can invest in renewing its fleet, much like Conair just achieved with British Columbia,” Berry said. There, a legacy Electra L-188 and Convair CV580 fleet has been retired and replaced with the new Dash 8-400AT airtanker. The agency received the benefit of being one of the first to secure the newest, most flexible and fuel-efficient airtanker in the world today, on a contract that was for an older-model aircraft. Similarly, Conair continuously improves aircraft features and systems to achieve safer missions throughout the duration of long-term contracts. “Partner agencies benefit from new technologies that might not have been achievable without the size of team and fleet that exists at Conair,” Berry explained.
Outlook for the future
Longer deals, though, are also essential if a private operator is to keep its fleet up to date.
Private industry can be more innovative than government agencies, and respond to the growing
need for aerial firefighting resources
Acquiring, designing, building and operating large airtankers is hugely expensive, and private operators require a commitment on the part of government agencies before making such large investments. “Very few private operators can make, or would make, that level of an acquisition without a long-term contract or purchase agreement in place from a government agency,” Berry concluded.
“Without question, private industry can be more innovative than government agencies, and respond to the growing
need for aerial firefighting resources,” said Rotonda.
In conclusion, even when national firefighting agencies commit to expanding their own aerial firefighting capacity, private operators will continue to be called on to provide short-term solutions for the foreseeable future. But longer-lasting relationships between private sector providers and national and regional entities may well become the new standard.