Large airtankers seen as firefighting savior, but not everyone agrees
Picture a plume of wildfire smoke rising from foothills, looming ominously over a city below. Residents, who can't see much from their homes but smoke and flame, finally see something that brings them hope: a massive airtanker passing over the fire, dropping a long plume of red retardant.
By Ryan Maye Handy
The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
COLORADO SPRINGS (Tribune News Service) — Airtankers soaring over a wildfire offer some of the most iconic images of firefighting around the world. During Colorado's record-breaking summers of wildfire, large airtankers were heralded as the salvation of firefighting efforts; they remain symbols of victory, of winning a battle against encroaching flames. Even while hundreds of fire crews worked deep in the forests, airtankers were the most obvious and powerful sign something was being done to stop the wildfire.
But airtankers the sizes of passenger planes are not a panacea, experts say. Their role is often poorly understood by the public, their effectiveness poorly understood by researchers. The planes can be tricky to work with because they can't always fly in mountainous terrain, and heavy retardant drops can be a safety hazard for firefighters below.
Nonetheless, as wildfires char much of the drought-stricken West, airtankers have become essential to wildland firefighting. The tankers are more sophisticated than ever, and bigger planes can fly farther with greater loads than their predecessors.
Last week, the Colorado Springs Airport announced it will become the home base of the country's largest and newest airtanker, a 747-400 Boeing Converted Freighter, which can fly with 19,600 gallons of retardant for 4,000 miles. City officials hope it will also bring more business to the flagging airport, which recently lowered its operational costs in an attempt to attract businesses like the plane's owner, Global SuperTanker Services LLC.
But experts caution that there's more to the supertanker than meets the eye. Many of the country's most impressive airtankers are privately owned and work on a contractual basis — and the 747 is the most expensive. While research has shown that large airtankers — which carry more than 3,000 gallons — can be effective, little research has been done on so-called supertankers like the 747.
While airtankers are crucial to firefighting efforts, their use is subject to much political pressure, said Robert Gray, a Canadian fire ecologist who also studies firefighting techniques.
"If people don't see the big airtanker, they assume that you aren't throwing all the possible airtankers at the fire," said Gray. "People equate airtankers with big success."
Bigger not always better
Airtankers have long been a crucial in battling wildfires, but as older planes retire and wildfires become more frequent, more large airtankers are taking to the skies. All tankers have their drawbacks, but some say that passenger-plane sized aircrafts have more limitations.
Studies have shown that largest airtankers are more affected by bad weather, and can't fly or drop as accurately over steep terrain. While a handful of big planes are frequently used to fight wildfires, the 747 has the least experience. Research from the U.S. Forest Service and NASA has questioned whether the 747 is effective in rugged terrain.
"In the process of bringing in the large airtanker, you have to pull resources off, and if it's in the timbered area they can't immediately go back in because it's not safe," Gray said. "You can't get people back on the fire quickly. The effectiveness is the combined ground resources with the air resources — air support isn't going to stop the fire."
Despite concerns about its maneuverability and size, the plane offers something unique: its nearly 20,000-gallon capacity and ability to make multiple drops.
While weather and landscape might limit where the plane can fly — it might not be the best choice to fight a fire up a mountain pass — it can fly farther than other airtankers. And the 747 can be always at the ready because it can sit fully loaded on a tarmac. Most planes must dump their loads immediately due to weight concerns.
Airtankers of different sizes have different roles in firefighting. Some single-engine tankers can carry fewer than 1,000 gallons of retardant but are more maneuverable. A DC-10 can carry around 12,000 gallons and works best on flat-land fire, such as the 2013 Black Forest fire.
Many airtankers used by the Forest Service were converted military aircraft from the 1940s and 50s, but the need for an updated fleet has pushed the Forest Service towards hiring privately owned newer and larger planes like the 747.
Before an airtanker drops, crews on the ground help those in the air determine the distance, breadth and force of the drop. When it comes time for a tanker to make a drop, crews get out of the way.
No airtanker will drop if they are likely to hit people
Retardant loads are much heavier than water, and when propelled by gravity they have been known to down trees. That's one complication that the new 747 supertanker won't create, said Jim Wheeler, president and CEO of Global SuperTanker Services. The plane uses a pressurized system for deploying retardant, which means that a drop feels like a heavy rain instead of gravity-propelled 8.5-pound per gallon dump, Wheeler said.
"If you get hit with that there is no need for a funeral, you are buried," he said.
Gray is concerned that a "heavy rain" pressurized fall won't penetrate thick forests, but Wheeler is confident that the 747's drops will have no problem getting through the forest.
Although there has been much criticism of the larger tankers — the Forest Service canceled several contracts in 2004 over safety concerns — the planes have generally been successful,
"NASA did a study of large airtankers, and they were very discouraging about the use of large air tankers," he said.
Use of big planes like a DC-10 has proved that large-capacity planes do help, however.
"But they've been proved completely wrong,"
Worth the cost?
Worth the cost?
STORY AT: http://www.stripes.com/news/us/large-airtankers-seen-as-firefighting-savior-but-not-everyone-agrees-1.363279?