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With Such Dry Conditions Larger And Larger Air Tankers Aid In The Firefight

US Foerst Service
An air tanker drops retardent on the Cedar Fire that burned in the Southern Sierra Nevada in August, 2016.

Due to such dry conditions here in California wildfires in recent memory have burned enormous portions of forest. Think the Rim Fire that destroyed 400 square miles and the Rough Fire that torched about half of that. These blazes require thousands of firefighters and new resources like air very large air tankers. And as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports these large plans can hold 10 times as much as the older planes.

When a wildfire sparks air tankers are the first responders.

They’re the planes that drop pink fire retardant from the sky to hopefully quarantine a blaze.

Below is a video of a jet propelled air tanker helping suppress the 30,000 acre Cedar Fire in the Sequoia National Forest that ignited in August.

Air taker pilot Brad Baker Based at the Porterville Air Attack base helped suppress the Cedar Fire.

“The fire behavior was pretty intense,” says Brad Baker. “It was looking pretty good, but by the peak burning hour, 3 o’clock or so, it spotted and really took off. With the other fires going we just didn’t have enough people on it.”

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Brad Baker works out of the Porterville Air Attack Base. Here he pumps his air tanker full of fire retardant.

Bakers’ one of the pilots independently contracted with Cal Fire at 11 bases across California. These pilots fly a plane called an S2T Air Tanker. These anti-submarine warfare planes have been retrofitted with turbine powered engine that drive a propeller.

“We’re launched typically at the first sign of smoke and we’ll go out and work in conjunction with ground troops and try to keep it as small as possible,” says Baker. “It’s been a lot harder to do that with fire intensity. You can’t really ask firefighters to step into a wall of 100 foot flames.”

Baker’s plane carries about 1,200 gallons of retardant. With such severe fires the total load he can carry is us not enough to stop a fire alone. That’s why the Forest Service and Cal Fire have invested in a few larger jet propelled planes called large air tankers or very large air tankers. Mike Ferris with the forest service says these recently modified tankers can hold up to 11,000 gallons of fire retardant and work well in dense tree canopies.

“The DC 10 is more effective in that type of canopy because it can release a larger load and hopefully that load can penetrate through the tree canopy and get down to the ground,” Ferris explains.

With that much retardant and ability to fly at higher speeds these large air tankers have the ability to go ahead of a fire and establish a barrier that the blaze will burn up to. CAL Fire has 27 air tankers in total and the Forest Service has 21. These planes move across the state as required.

Raul Contreras, US Forest Service Battalion Chief Manager at the Porterville Air Attack Base, and I are looking at a digital map of all the air tankers in flight across the country.

“This is the Cedar Fire,” Contreras says. “Air Attack 112 [is] over that fire right now inbound.  [It] tells you right now where they’re at, 178 knots at 9,500 ft.”

He says using these air tankers that once were passenger planes have enhanced the firefight especially with all the dead trees in the forest killed off by drought conditions and the bark beetle. 

“Now the jets are quick,” says Contreras. “From Northern California you can have a jet down here in an hour and half fighting a fire. With the P2V it takes two and a half hours sometimes.”

A P2V is one of the older propeller run tankers. That shortened time span is why these agencies have worked to modernize air tankers across the country.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
This map shows all the air tankers flying over the Western United States that day.

“While the smaller air tankers can get in there and drop precise drops these large air tankers can help when we have massive fires because of the sheer quantity of them,” says CAL Fire Public Information Officer Daniel Berlant.

He says the addition of these large planes is so important especially since some of the worst fires have started in autumn.

“While we’ve already seen well over 5,000 fires across California that have burned nearly 400,000 acres we’re still bracing for what could be the peak of the fire season,” says Berlant.

That’s why Brad Baker at the Porterville Air Attack Base is making sure his S2T tanker is ready to go. He drags and connects a thick black hose to his airplane and fills it with pink retardant. It reminds me of the consistency of a protein shake. 

Baker says it takes about three minutes for the tank to fill.

Now that his air tanker is full of retardant his job is to wait until he’s needed on another fire in the region.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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