Alberto Martínez /AMERICAN-STATESMAN
It will take a few days before a DC-10 jetliner, now at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, can douse blazes, officials say
BASTROP COUNTY — A converted DC-10 jetliner that can drop 11,000 gallons of fire retardant remained grounded Thursday because officials have no pilot to fly it and because the pump loading system was still being assembled.
But as news of the grounded plane drew complaints from evacuated residents, officials said the plane's delayed deployment was expected — and that it has not slowed or hampered firefighting efforts to contain the massive Bastrop Complex blaze that officials have said is one of the most destructive in state history.
"The plane arrived (Wednesday) from San Bernardino (Calif.), and we knew that it would take two days to get it operational," said Holly Huffman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Forest Service. "We have a number of air resources already in place that we are using."
Huffman and Bastrop County officials said the DC-10 owned by private contractor Ten Tanker arrived at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Wednesday, and the pilot began a mandatory period of two days off required by federal law after he had worked so many hours.
Huffman said the plumbing system used to load fire retardant onto the plane also arrived in Austin on Wednesday by truck, and a crew immediately began assembling it. She said that the "plant" takes two days to install and test.
"The (DC-10) has to fly with a lead plane and that lead plane is in place and ready to go," she said. "As soon as the plant is completed and tested, and the pilot is ready, it will be in operation.
"I know some people don't understand. But this is the procedure for this, and we have to follow that procedure."
Asked why the agency did not seek other pilots to fly the DC-10 to perhaps get it airborne faster, Huffman said the pilot has to be certified for that specific firefighting plane. The agency also faces competition for pilots from other states, particularly California, that also are fighting blazes, she said.
The tanker can make a difference once it takes flight, Huffman said, because it can spread retardant in a swath 50 feet wide and three-fourths of a mile long. It flies at about 560 mph and can make many runs per day with a 15- to 20-minute reloading time.
In the meantime, she said, aerial tankers, so-called "scooper" planes and Chinook helicopters continue fighting the fire that stretches to the south and east of Bastrop. In all, Texas on Thursday had 65 airborne firefighting resources in place — and 59 of those are available to fly, officials said.
"We have enough aerial resources to fight these fires," said Mike Fisher, Bastrop County's emergency management director. "We knew when we ordered (the DC-10) up that it would not be available for several days, and that was part of the plan.
"Not everything can be available immediately and you plan for that. How long does it take us to get out of Afghanistan?"