Saturday, September 09, 2017

This is why Oregon hasn't deployed the SuperTanker to fight Eagle Creek, Chetco fires

A Boeing 747 specially outfitted to drop up to 20,000 gallons of water or retardant on Oregon's wildfires is standing by, ready to travel over two of the nation's most urgent firefighting priorities.

But Gov. Kate Brown and the U.S. Forest Service aren't calling on the SuperTanker to aid in battling the Eagle Creek or Chetco Bar fires. And all of it has to do with the aircraft's limited effectiveness in both the Columbia River Gorge and the mountainous reaches of southern Oregon, officials say.

"If we need to use it, we'll just order it up," Doug Grafe, fire protection chief for the Oregon Department of Forestry. "But the the broken terrain won't allow it."

Strong and unpredictable winds, abetted by the heat of the fires burning in both ends of the state, also make maneuvering the 747 through the mountainous regions difficult enough.

"You need to fly this thing low and slow," Grafe said. "It works really well in open range country. But we just don't have much of that with Chetco or Eagle Creek."

The SuperTanker is also meant to act much like a tank, barreling ahead of an infantry of firefighters and dropping retardant or water so that men and women on the ground can tackle the blaze once it's somewhat suppressed. Rocky terrain in both the Eagle Creek wilderness and where the Chetco Bar blaze burns makes it all but impossible to send scores of people in after the aircraft.

"If you can't get people in there, you can't accomplish its mission," Grafe said.

Brown also said that heavy smoke and smog from both blazes made it difficult to asses just where the SuperTanker could target the fires burning beneath. Visibility is so bad that infrared is one of the only reliable ways to track what's burning.

The aircraft also requires immense effort to prepare and refuel, as KOIN reported earlier this week. KATU reports it also costs $120,000 per day to operate.

But the price and logistics aren't what's stopping state and federal officials from contracting the SuperTanker. Oregon State Forester Peter Daugherty said Brown has told him to disregard costs when considering how to tackle either of the state's large blazes.

"It's up to the incident management teams to ask for the resources they need to control the fire," he said.

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