‘Scary’: Lack Of Jet Fuel Could Ground Firefighting Aircraft

BOISE, Idaho — Due to a lack of jet fuel, airport authorities are afraid that they may have to turn away planes and helicopters dropping fire retardants during what might be a violent wildfire season, putting nearby towns at risk.

There have already been reports of sporadic shortages at several tanker sites in Oregon and Utah. The concern is that many sites will run dry at the same time during what is shaping up to be a very active wildfire season in the United States West. In the previous month, tanker bases in Arizona, where numerous big flames are burning, have also experienced jet fuel supply difficulties.

Jessica Gardetto, a veteran wildland firefighter and spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, stated, “We haven’t run across it before.” “With all of the current shortages, it’s a terrifying thought.”

It’s unclear whether jet fuel supply and delivery systems can be beefed up in time for this wildfire season to prevent issues keeping firefighting planes aloft if numerous big flames erupt throughout the West.

Jet fuel demand fell dramatically and supply chains atrophied during the coronavirus epidemic, according to airport officials, aviation supply firms, and jet fuel transport companies. Even as the economy improves and more people come to airports for long-delayed flights, they have yet to recover in the Western United States.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, jet fuel supply in the United States in 2020 will be down 38% from pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Since the beginning of the year, demand for jet fuel has grown by roughly 26%, albeit it hasn’t yet reached 2019 levels. According to the administration’s Weekly Petroleum Status Report for July 2, demand is 78 percent of what it was in 2019. This is up from 44% in the same time period in 2020 when the epidemic had already taken hold when the figure was 44%.

Jet fuel stocks in the United States are at or above the five-year average, according to the government, with the exception of the Rocky Mountains, where they are 1% lower. According to different industry officials, this appears to point to the supply chain as a possible issue.

“COVID lulled everybody to sleep,” said Mark Haynes, vice president of sales for Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Avfuel Corporation, which supplies jet fuel across the United States, including to roughly half of the country’s 44 air tanker bases operated by the United States Forest Service or the United States Bureau of Land Management in western states. Tanker bases are also maintained by certain states.

“Our firm has nearly ceased to exist,” says the entrepreneur, “Haynes said. “Many trucking businesses had to lay off (jet fuel) drivers as a result of the shortage. As a result of the United States’ opening up, demand for leisure travel has increased dramatically.”

The Central Coast Jet Center in Santa Maria, California, has Chris Kunkle as its vice president of operations. It’s a fixed-based operator, or private airport, that offers services for private aircraft including refueling. It also operates as a Forest Service air tanker facility, with a large enough hangar to accommodate DC-10 air tankers.

“We may have a fire here inside our reaction area in the blink of an eye that will bring in one to three DC-10s and a lot of variable-sized air tankers,” he added. “We can go from a few thousand gallons (3,800 liters) per day to 50,000 (190,000 liters) to 60,000 gallons (227,000 liters) per day,” says the engineer.

He said he prefers to maintain 60,000 gallons (227,000 liters) of fuel at the airport, but that delivery is restricted. If a big fire breaks out in the neighborhood, he thinks he will be forced to flee.

It might be tough to decide where the gasoline will go. In many places, commercial jet travel may be a significant economic engine. Air ambulances, too, require fuel. Large commercial carrier issues this year, according to industry sources, appear to be due to a lack of workers and pilots rather than a scarcity of jet fuel.

Humboldt Pacific LCC, located in Stockton, California, says it is extending its fleet of 20 jet fuel tanker trucks to deliver gasoline to West Coast states and, during wildfire season, Idaho, Montana, and Utah. He stated that there is now a driver scarcity as well as a shortage of jet fuel to supply.

“Right now, the supply chain is perhaps the most vulnerable I’ve ever seen in my years of experience,” Cyphers, who has worked in the business since 1986, said.

Pipelines supply most bigger airports, including those in Denver, Seattle, and Boise. However, many smaller, remote airports, such as those in Aspen, Colorado, Jackson, Wyoming, and Hailey, Idaho, near Sun Valley, rely on truck-delivered jet fuel. Many airports with tanker bases, often hundreds of kilometers from jet fuel refineries or pipelines, have similar policies.

Because they hadn’t gotten their full allocation of jet fuel, Cyphers said his business has been transporting jet fuel to airports supplied by pipeline.

Each year, hundreds of aircraft are deployed to combat wildfires. The vast majority of the country’s big retardant bombers are jets. Jet fuel is also used by turboprop retardant bombers. They drop red fire retardant strips ahead of oncoming flames to aid ground personnel, who are more likely to maintain a fire line after a retardant bomber has dropped.

Most firefighting helicopters also utilize jet fuel, which officials fear may be in limited supply in the future for aerial wildfire operations.

“I might be wrong, but I don’t see them being able to overcome that gap,” the trucking company’s Cyphers said.

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