USA — A converted jumbo jet that drops up to 10 times as much fire retardant astraditional air tankers took to the air Friday to try to slow the wind-drivenfire that has swept across thousands of acres in Riverside County, consuminghomes, forcing evacuations and killing four firefighters.
After its crew was hastily mobilized, the DC-10 tanker which has a12,000-gallon capacity and can lay down a chemical fire line half a mile long began making water drops Friday afternoon on ridgelines to prevent the firefrom reaching stands of highly flammable trees killed by bark beetles.
The aircraft carries such a big payload that it is particularly effective indropping long, uninterrupted lines of fire retardant, said Mike Jarvis,spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Itslows down the fire, so the ground crews can get it,” he said.
However, the same aircraft sat on a runway in Victorville for all but one day ofthe stubborn, monthlong federally controlled Day fire that devastated more than162,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties after Labor Day.
State fire officials say the plane is the first jet and the largest air tankerused for fighting fires in the United States. Despite its potential, the planehas been used sparingly because of safety concerns stemming from two fatal airtanker crashes in 2002. The crashes led the federal government to ground itsantiquated fleet of former military planes and impose strict requirements beforeallowing any tankers to take to the air.
The DC-10’s owners have not been able to meet all the U.S. Forest Service’s newairworthiness standards for the rigors of firefighting. But the company didcontract with the CDF this year, and the plane, at $26,500 an hour, was usedthis summer.
Another even larger converted tanker, a Boeing 747 cargo jet with a20,500-gallon tank, is also trying to complete federal reviews.
“They need to be able to fly, because we never have had such powerful toolsto fight wildfires,” said Tony Morris, founder of the nonprofit WildfireResearch Network in Topanga. “These are big guns, and when we needed them,as we did recently, they were missing. That is a shame.”
In June 2002, the wings of a Lockheed C-130A Hercules fell off as it droppedretardant on a forest fire near Walker, Calif., killing three crew members. Amonth later, the left wing of a Consolidated Vultee P4Y Privateer broke away asit maneuvered to drop retardant near Estes Park, Colo., and both crew membersdied.
The old military surplus planes probably had succumbed to metal fatigue, federalinvestigators found. The accidents exposed gaping weaknesses in the system thathad kept the nation’s firefighting fleet airborne for decades.
In scathing reports, a government blue ribbon panel and the NationalTransportation Safety Board concluded that the Forest Service and the Bureau ofLand Management relied too heavily on contractors to assure the airworthiness ofa privately owned fleet built from high-mileage military leftovers, resulting inan unacceptable safety record.
The federal government canceled contracts for all large tankers, then broughtsome back, leaving a fleet of 19 less than half the size in 2002. Officialshave tried to counter the loss by adding smaller planes and helicopters.
Meanwhile, a number of aircraft companies began developing larger, faster airtankers to fill the void and tap into the federal government’s annual$1.5-billion fire suppression effort.
Among them is the DC-10 owned by Oklahoma-based Omni Air International and CargoConversions of San Carlos, Calif.
Tom Harbour, Forest Service director of fire and aviation, said the 1974-vintageaircraft, which is based in Victorville, has flown 8,000 hours more than themanufacturer’s design life of 60,000 hours. The federal agency wants moreinformation showing it is airworthy.
“It is fundamentally because of that that we have concerns,” he said,explaining that firefighting puts more stress on planes than carrying passengers.
In mid-July, while a 62,000-acre fire raged out of control in San BernardinoCounty, an appeal was made to the governor to call in the DC-10, and within afew days, the California Department of Forestry, which was not bound by thefederal restrictions, had conducted reviews, flight tests and training beforecontracting with the operator.
State officials said they took precautions, dispatching a smaller CDF lead planeto guide retardant drops and assigning a CDF supervisor to ride in the DC-10.Hours after the contract was signed, the DC-10 was dropping retardant on thefire as it bore down on Big Bear Lake. Its performance was so good that the CDFsummoned it to two more California fires and one in Washington state.
But during the first three weeks of September, as the Day fire tore through theLos Padres and Angeles national forests, the DC-10 remained on the ground,except for one day when the CDF deployed it to help protect Santa Paula and Ojai.
For days, Dick Albright, a retired aerospace engineer, watched as the fireapproached his home in Lockwood Valley, and then he prepared his horses, catsand dogs for possible evacuation.
“Had they brought in the big tankers initially,” he said, “theywould have been able to put the fire down before it got a perimeter that washundreds of miles long.”