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Every summer we see the same image: brave firefighters flying helicopters and planes with tanks full of water or fire retardant over yet another forest fire. But is there actual evidence on whether or not these tactics ar effective? Have there been any scientific studies comparing forest fires with active aerial intervention with those that were left on their own?

For example, the following article claims that:

Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, has criticized aerial firefighting. “They must have a lot of money to spend — to waste,” he says of Colorado’s air corps budget. Stahl claims that fighting fire from the air is not only expensive, dangerous and environmentally harmful, but that it has yet to be proven to work.

Forest Service experiments have demonstrated that retardants can reduce fire intensity and spread up to twice as effectively as water. But in 2011, Stahl’s group did a correlational study using Forest Service data that found retardant use had no effect on wildfire size or initial attack success rates. (Jones said a new study hopes to address the data deficit, but data collection will need to continue for several more years.)

Once a big fire is burning, there’s no time to pause and debate issues of effectiveness or cost, however. “If a house burns down and you failed to use a 747 that could dump dollar-a-gallon fancy fertilizer water because you didn’t think it would make any difference, you shouldn’t be fighting fires,” Stahl says. “You will get clobbered politically when that house burns.”

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    @jeffronicus I'm asking whether or not aerial firefighting is a cost effective solution to forest fires, given how much we hear about it every summer. Water does extinguish fires but a load of water from a single plane is miniscule. – JonathanReez Aug 14 '18 at 18:48
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    @JonathanReez "Effective" is one issue; "cost effective" would be another, especially at scale. Here's an LA Times story from 2008 addressing the political pressure to send in the tankers when they're not necessarily effective: latimes.com/local/la-me-wildfires29-2008jul29-story.html – jeffronicus Aug 14 '18 at 19:06
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    @JoeW and what constitutes value depends heavily on the person you ask. For a member of the Sierra Club that tree housing a nest of squirrels may be more valuable than the half a million dollar cabin 10 miles up the road. – jwenting Aug 15 '18 at 4:48
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    Uh, are you asking whether aerial firefighting is effective or if fire retardants are more effective than plain water?? They are two entirely different questions! – Daniel R Hicks Aug 16 '18 at 19:55
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    "Forest Service experiments have demonstrated that retardants can reduce fire intensity and spread up to twice as effectively as water. But in 2011, Stahl’s group did a correlational study using Forest Service data that found retardant use had no effect on wildfire size or initial attack success rates." --- Aircraft are not even mentioned. – Daniel R Hicks Aug 17 '18 at 0:50

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