Thursday, October 12, 2017

SuperTanker finally helping fight California fires

Firefighters battling the deadly wildfires in northern California’s wine country haven’t had much good news, but the arrival this week of the only 747 supertanker in the world falls into that category.

The modified Boeing 747 owned by Colorado-based Global SuperTanker Services, LLC, flew six flights over fires in Napa and Sonoma counties on Monday. The aircraft can fly 600 miles per hour and drop 19,200 gallons of fire retardant over an area more than a mile long and 200 feet wide. It refills in 30 minutes.

As recently as June, it appeared that the plane would not be allowed to fly firefighting missions in the United States. The U.S. Forest Service offered a contract for tanker aircraft that could drop water or fire suppressant over wide areas, but the contract barred planes that could hold more than 5,000 gallons.

That left out the supertanker, despite its recent record of success fighting fires in Chile, Spain and Israel. Without a contract from the U.S. Forest Service, states would not be reimbursed for the cost of using the 747. It costs $50,000 a day to have the plane on stand-by, and $15,000 per flight-hour.

The supertanker isn’t new. The fire retardant system on the 747 was first used in 2009 to fight fires in Alaska, and it was fully certified by the Interagency Airtanker Board for a Call When Needed contract from the U.S. Forest Service in 2013.

However, the company that developed the system, Evergreen, went into bankruptcy. Global SuperTanker purchased the hardware and the intellectual property in 2015 and installed the system into a newer version of the 747. The new plane flew its first mission in November, 2016, in Israel.

In June, red tape effectively grounded the plane in the U.S. when an interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board, atypically brief at only six months in duration, expired. But on July 25, the same day that this news organization’s editorial page called for an end to bureaucratic delays holding up the use of the plane, the IAB issued a new 17-month interim approval, and federal certification followed soon after.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection put the plane under contract, and on August 31, with 19 fires burning in California, the supertanker was called from Colorado Springs to help. In its first week, the plane made 13 flights and spread 219,000 gallons of fire retardant in 21 separate drops.

Among its other stops, the plane flew to Riverside County to help fight the Palmer fire that burned more than 3,800 acres in San Timoteo Canyon west of Beaumont and south of Redlands.

The supertanker isn’t right for every situation, but the plane is unmatched in its ability to get to fires quickly and drop a larger volume of retardant. The next largest-capacity tanker, the DC-10, holds a maximum of 11,600 gallons.

Global SuperTanker CEO Jim Wheeler calls the plane “a force multiplier for the fire departments.” That’s certainly what’s needed in northern California right now.

The catastrophic wildfires in the wine country have now killed at least 21 people, and many more are missing. Over 73,000 acres have burned and more than 3,500 buildings have been destroyed. Every available weapon is needed in this battle, and it’s good news that the supertanker is now in Cal Fire’s arsenal.

Original article can be found here ➤

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