A recently published, Forest Service-sponsored study came up with a surprising conclusion – that so-called water-scooper aircraft should become the central component of the fleet of aircraft used to fight wildfires. Almost immediately after the study was made public, its conclusions were, however, rejected by the Forest Service. The study found that: (1) scoopers are considerably less expensive to own and operate than larger helicopters and fixed wing airtankers; (2) when fires are proximate to water sources, scoopers can drop far more water on a fire than a retardant-bearing aircraft can drop retardant; and (3) because most human settlement is near water, scoopers can be highly effective against many of the most costly fires.
These findings are contrary to the long-held belief that there are an insufficient number of convenient water sources available to allow scoopers to be used efficiently. However, the study found that at least two-thirds of historical fires have been within ten miles of a scooper-accessible body of water, while 80% have been within five miles of a helicopter-accessible body of water. Unsurprisingly, the study therefore found that these waterproximate fires are the fires against which helicopters and scoopers would be most valuable.
In rejecting the study’s conclusions, the Chief said that the figures the researchers had used as the basis for their calculations were not up to date, skewing the analysis.
For years fire commanders in the West have prized water-dropping helicopters for their versatility and ability to operate in a variety of terrain including in canyons or other hard-to-reach places, that are accessible to low-flying helicopters but not to scoopers, which are not as maneuverable and drop their payload from a higher altitude.