USA – Bigger. Better. Faster. Those three words describe Cal Fires newest weapon against wildfires an air tanker big enough to carry a space shuttle on its back.
A Boeing 747 that can drop up to 19,600 gallons of retardant at a time is now under contract with the state firefighting agency. It became available to use on Aug. 25, and Cal Fire first put it to use a few days later against the Ponderosa fire in Butte County in Northern California.
This weekend, it visited Riverside County, drawing awe from spectators who saw it unloading on the Palmer fire that burned more than 3,800 acres in San Timoteo Canyon west of Beaumont and south of Redlands.
The 747 is a pricey tool and isnt fit for every situation.
But its owner says that with the ability to lay down a line of retardant more than a mile long, it could save lives, property and wildlands.
If your house were on fire, would you call the fire department and ask them to send me the slowest, smallest fire truck youve got? Probably not, said Jim Wheeler, president and CEO of Colorado Springs-based Global SuperTanker Services. This is a force multiplier for the fire departments because theres nothing else out there like it.
Cal Fire has its own fleet of smaller planes, and contracts out with private companies that own larger ones.
Though the 747 has a capacity of 19,600 gallons of retardant, Cal Fire allows it to carry 18,500 gallons. The tanker with the next-largest capacity, a DC-10, carries 11,600 gallons.
Its larger than any of the other airtankers out there, said Jim Wheeler, president and CEO of Colorado Springs-based Global SuperTanker Services, which owns the 747. It has the capability to fly for long distances.
It can fly nearly 600 mph, allowing it to be anywhere in the United States in just under three hours, according to Global SuperTankers website.
Cal Fire isnt the only agency thats signed a call when needed contract for the aircraft, which is stationed at McClelland Air Force Base near Sacramento.
Three other agencies, all in Colorado, have signed similar contracts meaning the aircraft might not be immediately available to Cal Fire. The U.S. Forest Service is also evaluating whether to contract for its use.
The need for air tankers isnt in dispute. According to Cal Fire, 23 large wildfires were burning across the state on Tuesday, Sept. 5.
Cal Fire hopes its latest contract pays off.
Whether they fly or not, if we call them, its going to cost a minimum of $165,000 for three days, Cal Fire Deputy Director Janet Upton said. Once they fly it will cost $16,500 per flight hour.
Thats not including fuel and retardant. Phoschek, the red fire retardant used during wildfires, brings a cost of $2.50 to $3.50 per gallon, Upton said.
The value comes in how much retardant the new airtanker can drop.
The Cal Fire firefighting module would likely not want it all dropped at once, but rather in six or more portions meaning it could be dropped in several places.
Hopefully it will be cost-effective and a benefit to us, said Dennis Brown, Cal Fires chief of flight operations. It can bring a little more retardant to a fire than what we have currently.
The new 747s history
Wheeler said the new 747 marked by No. 944 on its tail started as a Japan Airlines passenger plane, then was converted in 2013 to a cargo plane for Evergreen International Airlines.
Evergreen went out of business later that year and the airplane was taken back by the leaseholder.
It remained parked until 2015, when Wheeler got a call from the private equity group that owns the plane.
To convert it into an air tanker, he had to provide 80,000 pages of documents to the FAA.
The conversion was completed in May 2016, and the plane flew its first fire mission in November in Israel.
Cal Fire put it into commission last month after completing aircraft inspections and pilot proficiency evaluations, Upton said. The agency will continue evaluating the aircraft over the next year and a half, she said.
This isnt the first time Cal Fire has contracted to use a 747; a different one was used in 2009, including on the Station fire in Los Angeles County and the Oak Glen fire in San Bernardino County.
The 747 isnt without drawbacks.
It has a place and a time, Brown said.
For example, some have said the new tanker is the equivalent of 10 of Cal Fires S-2 planes, which have a capacity 1,200 gallons. However, the 747 would be used differently.
S-2s are initial-attack planes that can get off the ground in five minutes to meet the objective of getting on a fire within 20 minutes, Brown said.
The S-2s have a wingspan of 73 feet, according to Cal Fire one-third the span of the 211-foot 747.
With a wingspan that wide, a 747 would not be used in canyons, Brown said. It would be better used on ridgelines where it can lay down a long line of retardant.
It has more uses than just firefighting; it can also be used to fight ecological disasters over water.
The plane can also lay down oil dispersant at oil spills and fight offshore platform fires, Wheeler said.