Supertanker 747 Finally Gets off the Ground

Last summer nearly 14,000 square miles of western forest went up in smoke, costing the Feds about $2.7 billion. Another gazillion was dropped by the states, with California leading the pack with $13 billion. Thousands of homes were destroyed, and dozens of people were killed, including two first responders. It seems the impact of these tragic events finally got the attention of our esteemed elected officials in Congress. They fixed the “fire borrowing” dilemma and word has it that the FAA bureaucratic roadblocks that grounded the world’s largest fire engine, the 747 Global Supertanker, have been lifted giving the airplane a green light to be deployed to fight wildfires.

This is good news. Last year the federal wonks said they would only give contracts to air assets with payloads of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons, thus putting the slam on most very large air tankers (VLAT). Of course, several states like California and Montana didn’t pay attention to that foolishness and contracted VLATs on their own.

Cal Fire was the first to use the 747 on the Ponderosa Fire near Sacramento on August 31 of last year, dropping 17,000 gallons of retardant in two runs. Christened “The Spirit of John Muir,” and designated by the Interagency Tanker Board as Tanker 944 (T-944), the aircraft can carry 20,000 gallons of water or retardant, either of which can be released all at once over a three-mile stretch, or at variable rates from its pressurized tanks, producing a tailored response to the firefighting need. Based in Colorado Springs, T-944 is the world’s largest, fastest, and longest-range aerial firefighting asset. It flies at 600 mph and can reach any place in the U.S. in less than three hours.

With fire season on the doorstep and the devastation of last year’s fires still smoking, knowing that the Supertanker will be available on a call when needed basis (CWN) is encouraging.

Oregon Steps Up

Now that the Supertanker has the Fed’s seal of approval, the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) has stepped up and contracted for the airplane on a CWN basis.

Last year, ODF contracted 27 air assets and flew nearly 1,500 hours on firefighting missions. This year the same number of aircraft, including helicopters, fixed wing detection planes, single engine air tankers, and a large airtanker have been secured for the state’s exclusive use. There are several other CWN agreements for firefighting aircraft, including the Supertanker.

Apparently, Oregon could have reached out and contracted with the 747 last year while the Chetco and Eagle Creek fires were raging, but terrain and wind conditions prevented the supertanker’s use. According to Oregon Live, the tanker would have been limited in the Columbia River Gorge and over the mountainous reaches of southwestern Oregon. Other air assets were used instead and logged several hours aiding ground crews fighting the fires.

Autonomous Firefighting Aircraft Is on the Way

Aircraft, whether they’re used for delivering hot shots, deploying smokejumpers, recon, or fire mapping, along with dropping water or retardant, play a vital role in wildfire suppression. However, their reliance on human pilots severely limits their potential.

Air tankers are restricted to daylight use, preventing fire fighters from taking advantage of usually cooler nighttime temperatures.

In response, two companies have formed an alliance to develop the first autonomous firefighting drone. Drone America, which specializes in the design and manufacture of UAVs, and Thrush Aircraft, which manufactures a variety of fire-fighting aircraft, are applying their considerable knowledge and expertise to build a remote-controlled drone with the ability to deliver 800 gallons of water or retardant to the heart of the fire. In addition, the aircraft could provide long-duration recon flights over the fire using infrared cameras, sensors, and integrated communication systems to allow accurate mapping of fire intensity, rate, and direction of spread.

This is a huge step in the right direction. Drone usage to fight fires has seen rapid growth. With our new normal of longer fire seasons and mega fires, it’s good to see new technology and innovation hitting the fire line.

Fire Season Is at the Door

Hiring and training for new fire fighters and refresher courses for returning crews have kicked into full swing across the Northwest. BIA, ODF, BLM, USFS, and private wildfire fighting crews are all ramping up for a predicted long and hot fire season.

Hopefully, the crystal ball gazers will be wrong. The burn scars from last year are healing, and we don’t need any more.

What’s Burning Now!

Currently, there are three prescribed fires burning in Oregon, seven in Idaho and none in Washington or Montana. Several BAER operations are ongoing across the Northwest.

However, fire season is up close and personal in Colorado, New Mexico and California.

The largest wildfire in the three states is the Ute Park Fire in New Mexico, burning over 36,800 acres and forcing about 2,000 people in the vicinity to evacuate. Current resources: 604 personnel including 15 crews, 7 helicopters, 29 engines, 7 bulldozers, 10 water tenders.

That’s a wrap. Stay safe out there!

(Talk back -[email protected])

(Source: InciWeb, ODF, WA/DNR, NWCC, USFS, AP, NIFC, OregonLive)


TimberWest November/December 2013
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