PORTLAND, Ore. — Big jets may go to work on Western forest fires this summer.
Two companies, one with a DC-10 and the other with a Boeing 747, are bidding for contracts in a field dominated by an aging air tanker fleet that has been beset by crashes in recent years.
Evergreen International Aviation of McMinnville, Ore., is spending $40 million to equip a 747 to fight wildfires. It confronts a DC-10 backed by an Oklahoma air-charter company, Omni Air International, and fitted with a tank built by Erickson Air-Crane of Central Point, Ore.
“We certainly have the door open to new ideas, and these are the first two serious ones we’ve seen,” said Rose Davis of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
The federal Interagency Airtanker Board clears new aircraft for federal contracts. As firefighting jets, they also need approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. Omni’s DC-10 has already received approval, and Evergreen’s 747 still needs it.
Evergreen has been working on its supertanker for more than two years. Last month it postponed a demonstration tour through 11 states to fine-tune the system that sprays retardant from the plane’s underbelly.
But federal authorities said there’s a good chance both jets could be cleared for duty and hired under trial contracts this summer.
“We have every reason to believe we’ll be on fires this season,” said Sam White, vice president of Evergreen’s Washington, D.C., office.
The larger planes have more capacity, speed and duration than air tankers traditionally used to fight fires.
The modified 747-200 carries 24,000 gallons of fire retardant in a tank inside its cargo hold. The DC-10 hauls 12,000 gallons of water in a tank strapped to its underside. Conventional air tankers haul up to about 3,000 gallons a flight.
Current propeller-driven air tankers cost roughly $3,000 to $6,000 an hour to use, and the jets would likely run much more. Firefighting authorities said they would balance the higher cost with the extra capacity.
“I think there is a place for a very large air tanker in the fleet,” said Dennis Lamun, a member of the Interagency Airtanker Board and an aviation official with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. “But it’s got to be cost-effective no matter where you use it.”
Walt Darran, a former American Airlines pilot who flies air tankers for the California Department of Forestry, said the big jets would complement — not replace — the existing fleet of firefighting aircraft. Forces still will need the versatility provided by smaller air tankers and helicopters, which can maneuver where the big planes cannot.
The federal government has 16 civilian air tankers on contract for the coming fire season, with openings for four more that could be filled in part by the new jets, Davis said. That’s down from the roughly 40 ready to fly in 2002, before many were grounded for safety reasons.