Fuel shortage threatens to ground firefighting aircraft in West

A DC-10 air tanker drops red retardant on a fire.
A DC-10 air tanker drops retardant while battling the Salt fire in Shasta County, Calif., on July 2.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

Airport officials facing jet fuel shortages are concerned they’ll have to wave off planes and helicopters that drop fire retardants during what could be a ferocious wildfire season, potentially endangering surrounding communities.

Sporadic shortages at some tanker bases in Oregon and Utah have already been reported. The worry is that multiple bases go dry simultaneously during what is shaping up to be a very busy wildfire season in the U.S. West. Tanker bases in Arizona, where many large fires are burning, have also had fuel supply issues in the last month.

“We haven’t run into that before,” said Jessica Gardetto, a National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman in Boise, Idaho, and a former wildland firefighter. “It’s a scary thought, with all the shortages going on right now.”


It’s not clear if fuel supplies and delivery systems can be bolstered in time for this wildfire season to avoid potential problems keeping firefighting aircraft aloft if multiple large fires break out around the West.

Airport officials, aviation supply companies and fuel transport companies said demand declined sharply and supply chains atrophied during the coronavirus pandemic. They have yet to bounce back in the Western U.S., even as the economy zooms ahead and more travelers flock to airports for long-delayed trips.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, jet fuel supplied in the U.S. in 2020 fell 38% compared to 2019 pre-pandemic levels. Jet fuel demand has increased about 26% since the start of this year, though it hasn’t reached 2019 levels. The administration’s Weekly Petroleum Status Report for July 2 shows demand at 78% of 2019 levels. That’s up from 44% of 2019 levels for the same time period in 2020 when the pandemic had taken hold.

The dryness of the vegetation, primed by both long-term drought and shorter-term heat waves, is making it easy for fires to ignite and even easier for them to spread.

Overall, the administration said, jet fuel inventories in the U.S. are at or above the five-year average, except in the Rocky Mountains, where they are 1% below. That appears to point to the supply chain as the potential problem, various industry officials said.

“COVID, it lulled everybody to sleep,” said Mark Haynes, vice president of sales for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Avfuel Corporation, which supplies aviation fuel across the U.S., including to about half of the nation’s 44 air tanker bases operated by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Western states. Some states also maintain their own tanker bases.

“Our business went to about zero,” Haynes said. “A lot of trucking companies had to lay off drivers. What happened with the opening up of the U.S., demand for leisure travel has boomed.”

Chris Kunkle is vice president of operations for the Central Coast Jet Center in Santa Maria, Calif., in Santa Barbara County. It’s a private airport known as a fixed based operator that provides services, such as refueling, for private jets. It also serves as a Forest Service air tanker base, and is large enough for DC-10 air tankers.

“In the blink of an eye, we can have a fire here within our response area that can bring in one to three DC-10s and a bunch of variable-sized air tankers,” he said. “We can go from a couple thousand gallons a day to 50,000 to 60,000 gallons.”

Already this year, there have been more than twice as many acres burned than during the same period last year — and hundreds more fires.

He said he likes to keep 60,000 gallons at the airport, but is having trouble with limited deliveries. He fears running out if a large fire breaks out in the area.

Deciding where the fuel goes can be difficult. Commercial jet travel can be a huge economic driver in many communities. Air ambulances also need fuel. Industry officials said problems affecting large commercial carriers this year appear to have more to do with worker and pilot shortages than lack of jet fuel.

Jeff Cyphers of the Stockton-based aviation fuel distributor Humboldt Pacific LCC, said he’s expanding the company’s fleet of 20 jet fuel tanker trucks to deliver fuel to West Coast states and Idaho, Montana and Utah. He said there’s currently both a shortage of drivers as well as jet fuel to deliver.

“The supply chain right now is probably the most fragile I’ve ever seen in my years of experience,” said Cyphers, who said he has been in the industry since 1986.

Most larger airports such as those in Denver, Seattle and Boise are supplied by pipeline. But many smaller airports such as those in Aspen, Colo., and Jackson, Wyo., and Hailey, Idaho, near the resort town of Sun Valley, rely on fuel delivery by truck. So do many of the airports with tanker bases, some of them hundreds of miles away from refineries or pipelines.

Cyphers said his company has even been trucking fuel to airports supplied by pipeline because they hadn’t received their full allocation of fuel.

Hundreds of aircraft are used to fight wildfires each year. Most of the nation’s large retardant bombers are jets. Turboprop retardant bombers also use jet fuel. They lay down strips of red fire retardant ahead of approaching flames in support of ground crews who are more likely to hold a fire line after a retardant bomber has made a drop.

Most firefighting helicopters also use jet fuel.

“I could be wrong, but I don’t foresee them being able to bridge that gap,” predicted Cyphers.