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A Shortage Of Aviation Fuel Temporarily Grounds Some Firefighting Efforts


About 80 large wildfires are burning across the U.S. But the teams that are fighting them in some Western states have had to temporarily ground some of the firefighting aircraft because it's getting harder than usual to get aviation fuel. From Boise State Public Radio, Troy Oppie reports.

TROY OPPIE, BYLINE: Many of the 1.3 million acres of land scorched by wildfires in the U.S. this year is in difficult or inaccessible terrain compounded by tinder, dry conditions.

FRITZ CLUFF: The fire conditions right now, the way they are, we are having to hit them with a lot of aircraft very quickly.

OPPIE: Fritz Cluff is fire management officer for the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho. He says late last week, the nine to 10 helicopters fighting fires near Salmon ran short of fuel when deliveries were delayed.

CLUFF: We did set a couple down for at least one fuel cycle just to make sure we would have adequate fuel and stuff for initial attack.

OPPIE: That means some had to skip at least one opportunity to drop water or retardant on flames or provide scouting information. The local airport provided what it could from its own reserves. And a few aircraft had to divert to other nearby airports to refuel. Cluff says it didn't have a big impact on fighting the existing fires. But...

CLUFF: If those were new, emerging, critical initial attacks, just the loss of that efficiency could be detrimental. That's what we were concerned about.

OPPIE: So why the shortage? A lot of it is logistics and transportation.

MARK HAYNES: Out of my 38 years of doing this, this is the most difficult year that I've ever encountered.

OPPIE: Mark Haynes is VP of sales for Avfuel, one of the largest aviation fuel supply companies in the U.S. He says the supply chain that gets fuel from refineries to airports is only as strong as its weakest link. Right now, that's a shortage of tanker truck drivers, drivers who need special certifications that can take months to get.

HAYNES: Once you start getting west of the Rockies, the supply sources are further spread out. So the trucks have to - you know, especially these outlying airports, the trucks have to run 200, 400 miles to deliver a load of jet fuel.

OPPIE: Some states have temporarily lifted restrictions on how many hours tanker truck drivers can spend behind the wheel. But fuel refineries in Western states haven't been able to run at full capacity during this unusually hot summer, says Tom Kloza with the Oil Price Information Service.

TOM KLOZA: The refineries were not made to operate when it's 100-plus degrees. So we saw issues with refining this month that knocked production down to about 84, 85% of capacity.

OPPIE: Kloza says the population boom in the West has also increased demand. But there are no new refineries in the region. The supply crunch has had at least some impact on firefighting in Oregon and Utah, as well as Idaho. And in Montana, last Sunday, nearly a fifth of commercial passenger flights were delayed for hours in Bozeman, that state's busiest airport, for lack of fuel. Fritz Cluff, the forest service fire manager in Idaho, says his fuel supply is stable for now.

CLUFF: If we get busy again - as I'm looking outside and we have lightning going on again - we might be good for another three to five days. And then we'll have to see what happens. And we'll be prepared to prioritize as we need to.

OPPIE: The National Interagency Fire Center says around 375 aircraft are currently deployed on fires. The Oil Price Information Service says sporadic aviation fuel shortages could continue across the west the rest of this summer.

For NPR News, I'm Troy Oppie in Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENDLESS DIVE'S "HEAVY CLOUDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Troy Oppie
Troy Oppie grew up playing trombone in Seattle, developing an interest in jazz at an early age thanks to many great music teachers. That interest in music became an interest in radio, and Troy was eventually blessed with an opportunity to host overnight jazz programming on KPLU-FM in Seattle for nearly five years.