Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Study from the U.S. Forest Service Sheds New Light on How to Improve Aerial Resource Strategies for a New Age of Wildfires

APPLETON, Minn.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–#aerialfirefighting–The U.S. Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), recently released the results of the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) Study. The nationwide, multi-year AFUE study was chartered by the Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management Program to answer a pivotal question given the growing U.S. wildfire threat: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?”

The team at Dauntless Air, an aerial firefighting company deeply dedicated to protecting people, land and property from the devastation of wildfires, reviewed the long-awaited report from the perspective of the communities it serves: residents, business owners, wildland firefighters, and state and federal officials in communities and surrounding areas affected by the destruction, displacement and smoke caused by large complex wildfires. Looking through this lens, Dauntless sees 2 big takeaways and 3 big ideas.

2 Big Takeaways


The AFUE report reinforces what is known about the current use of aerial firefighting in today’s Managed Fire model.



Managed Fire, the official strategy of the U.S. Forest Service, allows presumed non-threatening wildfires to run their natural course within defined perimeters. When successful, fire agencies steer Managed Fires away from vulnerable communities in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and toward areas that have an abundance of built up fuels on the ground—dead or overgrown vegetation. When these fuels are removed, the area becomes less prone to intense wildfires in the future.



Managed Fire can be difficult to execute reliably as it requires fire agencies to control the path of natural disasters. To do this, agencies rely heavily on numerous large and expensive retardant-dropping air tankers working together on the same large fire to draw containment lines around the threat and guide it away from homes and businesses.



The AFUE findings mirror the Managed Fire-driven approach to aerial firefighting. Usage results show:


The vast majority of the drops assessed in this study were completed by large aircraft—Large Air Tankers (LATs), Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs), Multi-Engine Scoopers (MES), and Type 1 helicopters—in an effort to control large wildfires that were allowed to burn across landscapes to remove fuels.


Smaller aircraft—Single-Engine Scoopers (Fire Bosses), Type 2 and 3 helicopters, and retardant-dropping Single-Engine Air Tankers (SEATs)—were predominantly used to subdue small fires during Initial Attack, when a fire is smaller than 100 acres in timber or 300 acres in grass or shrubland. Since Initial Attack and rapid response to small wildfires are not primary goals of today’s Managed Fire approach, drops from smaller aircraft were not as prevalent in the study as drops from large aircraft.






The report sheds new light on modern aerial firefighting approaches that have the potential to improve the effectiveness of how the country fights wildfires.



The report states, “In general, helicopters and scoopers had higher percentages of effective drops (from 62% for multiengine scoopers to 87% for single-engine scoopers [Fire Bosses]) relative to airtankers (from 43% for LATs to 54% for SEATs).”



During Initial Attack, Fire Bosses and Type 2 helicopters were found to be the most effective of all aircraft at delaying a fire and reducing its intensity, making these aircraft the best option when the goal of the agencies managing the fire is to suppress it quickly, reduce WUI devastation and avoid widespread negative health impacts of smoke from large complex wildfires. Delaying a fire and reducing its intensity during Initial Attack cools the fire environment for wildland firefighters on the ground, giving them a better chance to suppress the fire before it grows destructive and releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide and particulate matter into the atmosphere.



When a fire grows too large to be quickly suppressed, and must instead be steered around communities and contained, fire agencies call in LATs and VLATs to halt spread and point protect human life and development. Regarding these drop objectives, the study states:



“…LATs, and VLATs were rarely used to reduce fire intensity and instead used more for halting fire spread (41% to 45% of all drops); results indicate lower probabilities of success (POS) for these tactics (POS = 0.55 to 0.67).”



“…LATs, and VLATs were used slightly more frequently than other aircraft to provide point protection of values (8% of drops). These drops had higher POS values compared to other airtanker drop objectives (POS = 0.78 to 0.87).”


The findings indicate that when wildfires threaten communities the best mix of aircraft for the job are Fire Bosses and helicopters that are dispatched during Initial Attack. These aircraft are more effective and cost efficient at this stage of wildfire suppression compared to LATs and VLATs during Large Fire operations.

3 Big Ideas

If fire agencies act on the AFUE findings and configure aerial firefighting strategies to reflect aircraft effectiveness, it opens up additional opportunities to improve our nation’s aerial firefighting readiness.


Aerial resources can be strategically pre-positioned, ahead of fire activity, for maximum coverage and rapid response across a region.




Picture a classic hub and spoke distribution model. The spokes—which would extend and spread through a wildfire-prone region—would be the Rapid Initial Attack fleet of Fire Bosses and helicopters. The hub—which would be situated centrally within an at-risk region—would consist of LATs and VLATs ready to take on large fires that escape initial containment.




In this model, as soon as an unwanted fire is reported, the nearest spoke would immediately respond, dispatching a pre-positioned Rapid Initial Attack helicopter and two Fire Bosses that could arrive over a blaze within an hour, quickly delaying the fire and reducing its intensity and giving firefighters on the ground a greater chance to succeed.




Should the fire escape containment, the hub would kick into action, deploying larger aircraft (LATs and VLATs) to paint retardant lines and point protect human life and assets at risk in the surrounding area.



This rapid response, hub-and-spoke distribution model complements the Managed Fire approach to suppression: In the rare instances where a wildfire can burn with no impact to lives or property, it should be allowed to burn. In the much more common situation where an uncontrolled wildfire could threaten WUI communities, it should be suppressed quickly, during Initial Attack and when it is still small. Doing so saves significant suppression expense, which can be spent on forest health initiatives, such as prescribed burns and forest thinning. This has the potential to create thousands of jobs nationwide while reducing the wildfire threat for years to come.




Exclusive-use contracts can increase aerial resource availability and cross-agency sharing.



Exclusive-use (EU) contracts ensure aircraft availability, which is particularly important during the first 1-2 hours of a wildfire. If EU resources are available to dispatch right away during Initial Attack, they can support the hub and spoke model and make all the difference in preventing a small wildfire from growing into a larger disaster that threatens lives and impacts air quality.



Historically, state and federal agencies have moved away from EU contracts and toward Call When Needed (CWN) arrangements. Why? Because when few wildfires break out in a season, CWN contracts incur less overall cost to taxpayers as the contracted aircraft are rarely called in to help on a fire. However, low-activity wildfire seasons are few and far between, and today’s well-intended CWN contracts often result in higher overall costs to the taxpayer. Fortunately, the aerial resources found in the study to be most effective for Initial Attack, Fire Bosses and Type 2 helicopters, are significantly less expensive than LATs and VLATs, making these smaller assets the most cost- and fire- effective tools to include in state and federal budgets for these EU contracts.



By removing outdated Small Business Administration (SBA) Carve-Outs, the industry will be better positioned to respond to the report’s call for increased innovation.



The report notes several areas for possible innovation and improvement, including expanding the collection and analysis of Additional Telemetry Unit (ATU) data and leveraging big data analytics and machine learning to design new performance metrics and create predictive models that help managers evaluate the probability of success.




In reality, it’s recognized that widespread investments in big data and machine learning will be challenging given the current SBA carve-outs. Decades ago, the SBA set a limit on the size of aerial firefighting operators so local farmers who had converted agriculture planes to fight wildfires couldn’t be squeezed out by larger firefighting companies. Today, aerial firefighting is a $1 billion industry. These outdated SBA limits (defined by NAICS codes) are preventing operators from accessing the investment capital needed to modernize and improve technologies, training and safety infrastructure to keep pace with the evolving wildfire threat.



Aerial firefighting operators bound to NAICS codes remain unable to attract sufficient capital to invest in all the important advances identified in the AFUE report. Only by removing the outdated restrictions placed on today’s aerial operators will our nation be in a position to create the robust and technologically advanced wildfire response system that can match today’s wildfire threat.

This season in particular has made it painfully clear that the U.S. wildfire approach needs to change. Season after season we see large, devastating wildfires destroy homes, threaten lives and impact the public health of millions of people all around the country. It is imperative for the industry, lawmakers and residents to pay attention to important reports like the AFUE and use the findings to inform and advocate for new and better strategies to protect against the wildfire threat. The long-term safety of our planet and communities depends on it.

About Dauntless Air

Dauntless Air is an aerial firefighting company deeply dedicated to protecting people, land and property from the devastation of wildfires. The company works tirelessly to give firefighters the support they need to put out fires faster and at a substantially lower cost than traditional tanker methods. Armed with the country’s largest and most advanced Fire Boss fleet featuring the very latest in firefighting technology, Dauntless is resolute in its commitment to safety, to its customers and to winning the wildfire missions it undertakes. Learn more at


Joanna Clark

CXO Communication