California’s long and deadly wildfire season is wearing down its firefighting pilots and causing Cal Fire to ground as many as six aircraft at a time because of staffing shortages.
Schedules obtained by The Sacramento Bee show a rising number of grounded aircraft as the summer fire season progressed because pilots were unavailable to fly the planes.
The shortage is particularly acute among low-flying S-2T tanker pilots. An average of four of the state’s 23 tankers have been grounded on certain days in August because they lacked pilots.
It left a critical firefighting component — a rapid response team to attack fires soon after they ignite — significantly understaffed as California battled its worst wildfires this season.
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Cal Fire leaders say they cannot remember having so many aircraft grounded during peak fire months because of staffing shortages. They can call on private companies and federal aircraft to fill in during an emergency, but they acknowledge that the department’s pilot shortfall is straining the fleet.
“We are doing our best to consider the mission of the department in this as well as the needs of our pilots,” said Cal Fire Chief of Flight Operations Dennis Brown.
His plans have been hampered by intense July fires that kept pilots working nonstop, retirements, long-term medical absences, private companies poaching their experienced pilots, an unexpected death and a cluster of job candidates who opted not to become tanker pilots after completing training, he said. Within the last year they lost 10 air tanker pilots to those issues.
“They would have had to have a crystal ball to predict this,” said Jim Barnes, a longtime tanker pilot who recently retired.
Several current and former firefighting pilots in California declined to be interviewed on the record for this story, citing Cal Fire’s ability to take away their authorization to fly tankers.
The staffing issue is going to take a while to address. In order to cover current shortfalls, fix the daunting schedule Brown admits is having adverse effects on their pilots and staff new planes coming in, Brown estimates they’ll need about 40 more pilots in the next few years. Eight people are currently in training to become air tanker pilots, but Brown said historically less than half of trainees actually decide to become air tanker pilots with Cal Fire.
“The training is much more vigorous than it used to be, but that’s a good thing,” Barnes said. “They’ve come forward light years on that issue.”
Meanwhile, Cal Fire is preparing to reconfigure its fleet to reflect the realities of the state’s recent year-round fire seasons.
Today, it mostly flies aircraft built in the 1970s and ‘80s, and its schedules are built on what officials now say is an outdated assumption that firefighters will get a few months of rest every winter.
“We used to have winter maintenance. There is no more winter maintenance,” Brown said.
As a result, the state is adding new Blackhawk helicopters at a cost of $24 million apiece and taking on seven retrofitted Air Force C-130 planes as new tankers. Each of the new aircraft represents millions of dollars in investment — and the need for more and more pilots.
The department is rethinking a demanding schedule that has pilots working six days on before getting a day off. That schedule used to make sense when a pilot could take off on a beach vacation for around half the year, but Cal Fire can’t make that promise anymore.
“To stay competitive and also as a matter of safety, we can’t work these people year-round at these rates,” Brown said.
Cal Fire and DynCorp, the private company that flies and maintains the state’s firefighting airplanes, are now struggling to fill just three slots for tanker pilots that would let them keep all of the state’s S-2T tankers up and running.
In many cases, they’ll be competing with private companies that offer better pay and friendlier schedules.
“It’s really hard to find specialized pilots to do the kind of work Cal Fire does,” said Ed Hrivnak, a firefighter and search-and-rescue pilot in Washington state.
He said virtually every level of government is trying to recruit pilots because they’re experiencing waves of Baby Boomer retirements. That means intense competition for qualified pilots. “I get unsolicited job offers,” Hrivnak said.
The S-2T tankers with the most pronounced staffing challenges are part of a layered fleet of aircraft that can rapidly respond to fires throughout the West. Cal Fire manages the fixed-wing fleet, but the aircraft are flown and maintained by employees of contractor DynCorp. The company gets about $60 million a year for its work with the state fire department.
Barnes, the recently retired pilot, said S-2Ts are critically important. They represent a rapid response team that is called when fires are still in the beginning stages – before they grow to wildfire status and become much more difficult and costly to contain.
“Not having these planes fully staffed is a significant limitation,” Barnes said. “The opportunity to contain a new fire is not long, so if you don’t have that capability it’s a big hole in the program.”
This year, anticipating a staffing shortfall, Cal Fire hired companies to fly additional helicopters and three large tankers through November. They are on call and can’t leave the state for the duration of the contract.
Cal Fire can call on federal resources, such as the National Guard, and it can hire private aircraft in emergencies to dump water or retardant on wildfires.
Cal Fire also has a dozen UH-1 Huey helicopters flown by state firefighters. The pilots “are working crazy overtime, like everyone else,” said Tim Edwards, their union rank-and-file director.
Some of the department’s staffing challenges this season were years in the making. It knew that some of its pilots were planning to retire, for instance, and increased training seats in recent fire seasons. Last year was also the first year Cal Fire didn’t have a reserve pilot to cover when other pilots were sick or took off for an emergency, a taste of the staffing problems to come this year.
Brown said they could not anticipate that some of the trainees would elect not to become tanker pilots. Less than half of the pilots who begin the program actually choose to fly the tankers, with some not taking to the training, others electing to take jobs with other companies and some deciding air tanker flying isn’t for them.
The job is inherently dangerous. The tanker holds about 1,200 gallons of flame retardant, and pilots have to react quickly to changes on the ground. Tankers crashed on Cal Fire missions in 2014 and in 2006.
“This isn’t as much a money issue as it is a qualified pilot issue,” Brown said. “If all trainees had gone through and been successful, I know we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now,” he added.
Art Trask, a retired DynCorps Cal Fire program manager, said he was worried that the six-day pilot schedule was too much to ask during California’s year-round firefighting seasons.
“I’m more concerned about next year and the year after and the year after,” he said. “I’m hearing people are tired.”
Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby