USA — Fresh from acquiring a firefighting jumbo jet that dwarfs all other air tankers in the U.S., Cal Fire is trying to add even more large air tankers to its lineup for next fire season.
The reason: The U.S. Forest Service downsized its fleet of large air tankers several years ago because of safety concerns, and the size of the fleet hasn’t fully recovered. This year, the fleet totaled only 16 airplanes — down from a high of 44.
And that means California, which has had two catastrophic firestorms in four years, must become more self-reliant when it comes to air tankers, in the view of top-ranking Cal Fire aviation officials.
A tanker drops retardant during a Big Bear-area fire in September. Cal Fire is considering call-when-needed contracts for large craft. Photo: Paul Alvarez / The Press-Enterprise
“At any given time, (the national fleet) may be committed someplace else when we need it here,” said Chief Mike Padilla, who oversees Cal Fire’s firefighting aircraft. “In the past, when there were larger numbers, we could anticipate that there would be several (large air tankers) remaining in California. That’s not always the case now.”
Cal Fire will continue to operate its own fleet of 23 medium-size, twin-engine air tankers that are geared to pounce on small fires and help extinguish them before the flames can consume more than 10 acres.
But those planes each carry only 1,200 gallons of fire retardant. The federal tankers have 2,000- to 3,000-gallon capacities, considered ideal for fighting larger fires that can rage for many days.
That is the gap that Cal Fire is trying to fill.
“We’re tired of waiting for the federal government to expand its large tanker program,” Padilla said.
He believes that federal aviation officials are trying to solve the problem, he said.
“But I don’t see anything happening for a couple of years. That’s why we’re trying to fill the gap.”
As an interim step, Cal Fire contracted this year with the owners of a former American Airlines DC-10 jetliner that has been converted to a mammoth 12,000-gallon tanker. Based in Victorville, the super tanker excels at building retardant lines of up to a half-mile at a time and has two years left on its contract with Cal Fire, Padilla said.
Current, Future Tankers
During last month’s firestorms throughout Southern California, Cal Fire also brought in two 3,000-gallon Douglas DC-7s from Oregon and a 7,200-gallon WWII-era Martin Mars seaplane from Canada.
For next year, Padilla said he is exploring the possibility of again issuing call-when-needed contracts for DC-7s.
Other possibilities include P-2V Neptunes and P-3 Orions, the same type of aircraft that form the backbone of the federal fleet, along with Douglas DC-4s and DC-6s and Russian Be-200 amphibious air tankers.
Even a Russian super tanker — an 11,000-gallon IL-76 — is under consideration.
“We haven’t had an opportunity to look at the Russian IL-76,” Padilla said. “What are its limitations? What are its advantages? We haven’t made a determination.”
But even if Padilla can find the right planes, he’ll face competition. Oregon, Washington and other states are exploring some of the same possibilities for similar reasons.
“Oregon doesn’t want to be in the air tanker business, but we are,” said Jim Ziobro, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s top-ranking air tanker official. “And until we can feel adequately supported (by the U.S. Forest Service’s tanker fleet), we are going to continue … in the air tanker business.”
Oregon plans to continue contracting for two DC-7s for at least the next five years, Ziobro said. He’s also keeping an eye on what else is available, just in case.
“Alaska is looking at (contracting for) Convair 580s,” Ziobro said. “And we may be looking at them in the future if something happens to the DC-7s.”
In the meantime, Oregon and other states in the Pacific Northwest have an agreement that allows them to share air tankers during emergencies, just as fire departments often share crews and fire engines under mutual-aid agreements.
Help From Canada
Increasingly, state forestry officials are turning to Canada for air tankers.
“We use the Canadians more than we use the Forest Service,” said David Doan, the top-ranking air tanker official for Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources. “We’ve started negotiations with Saskatchewan. They have six CL-215 (“Super Scoopers”) and three Convair 580s, with a fourth one that will be online in 2008.
“They go off-contract in July-August, just about the time that our fire season starts,” he said.
Doan said he also has made phone calls to state forestry officials in Minnesota and North Carolina, both of which use CL-215 Super Scoopers.
Like many of his colleagues, Doan says there is no clear solution to the problem of expanding and modernizing the fleet of aging air tankers.
“Nobody is going to build these things without some sort of guarantee that they’re going to be able to pay for them,” Doan said.
The Forest Service, which historically has operated the nation’s largest fleet, never has issued a set of specifications for its next generation of air tankers or even guaranteed long-term contracts.
Some commercial firms have proposed modifying modern airplanes to serve as large air tankers.
“There are a couple of companies that are looking at small jets like (Boeing) 737s,” Doan said. “Most of it is up in Canada where they’re doing the research.”