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Western wildfires heating up jet fuel demand

Commercial pilots being asked to conserve despite below normal supply

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

High demand for jet fuel out West has firefighting crews and airlines jockeying for position.

American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL) told its pilots to conserve fuel, warning them in a memo obtained by CBS News that jet fuel delivery delays that started at small and midsize airports in the West could continue through mid-August. 

“These challenges are not only impacting airports and airlines but also the efforts to fight the large forest fires on the West Coast,” the memo said, according to a CBS News report Monday. “American Airlines station jet fuel delivery delays initially affected mostly Western U.S. cities, but are now being reported at American stations across the country.”

Nevada state and federal officials said in a statement Saturday that jet fuel shortages could delay cargo delivery and passenger travel at Reno-Tahoe International Airport (ICAO code: RNO), one of the state’s busiest and close to popular tourist destinations. Their focus was to minimize disruption for passengers and the delivery of goods, in addition to helping ensure those fighting wildfires had the resources they needed.

“To be clear, further failure to secure adequate fuel supplies is unacceptable,” wrote Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, and Rep. Mark Amodei.

More than 80 fires have forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes in several Western states in recent weeks, including southern Oregon’s Bootleg fire and northern California’s Dixie fire. These are the two largest fires in the nation, at 410,731 and 208,206 acres in size, respectively. Some of the fires have been so intense they’ve created their own weather in the form of dry thunderstorms and fire whirls, spreading smoke as far as the East Coast.

As of Thursday, the National Interagency Fire Center reported that 79 large wildfires were burning more than 1.5 million acres of land in 12 states, all of them in the West.

Recent delays at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (ICAO code: BZN) were a result of jet fuel demand in part from firefighting aircraft in both Montana and the Pacific Northwest, The Associated Press reported Sunday. Shortages due to a lack of tanker truck deliveries were behind the flight disruptions at Fresno Yosemite International Airport (ICAO code: FAT) in California.

As of July 16, the demand for fuel has increased 29% since the beginning of the year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. It’s up 49% compared to the same week last year. The agency noted that inventory had dropped in both the Rocky Mountain and West Coast regions since the beginning of July.

When air travel plummeted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, jet fuel suppliers reduced the amount that they sent through the pipelines that serve individual airports where their customers fuel up — pipelines that also carry gasoline, diesel and heating oil — and can’t easily ramp back up.

Trade group Airlines for America, which represents American, Delta, United, Southwest and other airlines, blamed a lack of pipeline space for jet fuel as well as a shortage of fuel trucks and drivers amid a surge in travelers and cargo, CBS News reported.

American Airlines pilots were advised to use any strategies they could to save on fuel, such as using a single engine to taxi, and warned that planned fuel stops could be necessary if the station was running low.

Related: Wildfires halt Union Pacific, BNSF trains in Northern California

American confirmed in a statement to CBS News that it was seeing jet fuel supply disruptions, but is trying to minimize any effects on passengers. As of Monday, no flights had been canceled because of jet fuel shortages.

“It’s hard to predict how long the shortage will last,” Stacey Sunday, a spokeswoman for the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, told The Associated Press. “There’s just nobody available to drive the trucks of fuel in here.”

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.