Firefighter’s widow files suit against CAL FIRE and Global Supertanker over air tanker drop

The widow of the Draper, Utah firefighter who was killed while fighting a wildfire in Northern California has filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the company that operates the 747 Supertanker, according to a report by the Sacramento Bee.

Matthew Burchett
Matthew Burchett. Photo: Draper City FD

Matthew Burchett, a 42-year old Battalion Chief from the Draper City Fire Department was killed August 13, 2018 when a retardant drop from the 747 air tanker uprooted an 87-foot tall tree that fell on him. Three other firefighters had different assortments of injuries from sheered-off trees and limbs, including broken ribs, deep muscle contusions, ligament damage to extremities, scratches, and abrasions.

On September 14, 2018 CAL FIRE released what they call a “Green Sheet” report about the fatality and injuries that were caused by the falling tree debris. The accident occurred on the Ranch Fire which was part of the Mendocino Complex of Fires east of Ukiah, California.

747 Palmer Fire supertanker
Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

Standard procedure is for firefighters to leave an area before an air tanker drops. The report said the personnel on that Division were told twice that day to not be under drops — once in a morning Division break-out briefing, and again on the radio before the fatal drop and three others from large air tankers were made in the area. It was not confirmed that all supervisors heard the order on the radio to evacuate the drop area.

One of the “Incidental Issues / Lessons Learned” in the report mentioned that some firefighters like to record video of air tanker drops:

Fireline personnel have used their cell phones to video the aerial retardant drops. The focus on recording the retardant drops on video may distract firefighters. This activity may impair their ability to recognize the hazards and take appropriate evasive action possibly reducing or eliminating injuries.

The air tanker that made the drop was T-944, a 747-400 that can carry up to 19,200 gallons. Instead of a more conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery system, the aircraft has pressurized equipment that forces the retardant out of the tanks using compressed air. This is similar to the MAFFS air tankers. When a drop is made from the recommended height the retardant hits the ground as a mist, falling vertically, rather than the larger droplets you see with a gravity tank.

Diagram fatality air tanker drop Green Sheet
Diagram from the CAL FIRE Green Sheet.

In this case, according to the report, the drop was made from approximately 100 feet above the tree tops. The report stated:

The Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) identified the drop path to the VLAT by use of a smoke trail. The VLAT initiated the retardant drop as identified by the smoke trail. Obscured by heavy vegetation and unknown to the VLAT pilot, a rise in elevation occurred along the flight path. This rise in elevation resulted in the retardant drop only being approximately 100 feet above the treetops at the accident site.

When a drop is made from a very low altitude with any air tanker, the retardant is still moving forward almost as fast as the aircraft, as seen in this drop. If it is still moving forward there will be “shadows” that are free of retardant on the back side of vegetation, reducing the effectiveness of the drop. From a proper height retardant will gradually slow from air resistance, move in an arc and ideally will be falling gently straight down before it hits the ground. Another example of a low drop was on the Liberty Fire in Southern California in 2017 that dislodged dozens of ceramic roofing tiles on a residence and blew out several windows allowing a great deal of retardant to enter the home.

Global Supertanker, the company that operates the 747 Supertanker, gave us this statement shortly after the Green Sheet was released:

We’re heartbroken for the families, friends and colleagues of Chief Burchett and the other brave firefighters who were injured during their recent work on the Mendocino Complex Fire. As proud members of the wildland firefighting community, we, too, have lost a brother.

On August 13, 2018, Global SuperTanker Services, LLC acted within procedural and operational parameters. The subject drop was initiated at the location requested by the Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) after Global SuperTanker Services, LLC was advised that the line was clear.

The company is owned by Alterna Capital Partners LLC, of Wilton, Conn.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Tankers battling the Lime Fire spotted at Medford

Air Tanker 167 at Medford Oregon
Air Tanker 167 at Medford Oregon September 9, 2019. Photo by Tim Crippin.

(Originally published at 2:32 p.m. PDT September 11, 2019)

Tim Crippin shot these photos of air tankers that were working on the Lime Fire and reloading at Medford, Oregon on September 7 and 9. They were all departing when the pictures were taken.

The Lime Fire, according to a mapping flight at 1:42 a.m. Wednesday morning, has burned 2,011 acres, but it was reported to be 1,911 acres at about 10 a.m. Wednesday by the Incident Management Team. The blaze is in Northern California 32 miles south of Medford, west of I-5, and just north of Highway 96. The fire has been fairly quiet for the last 24 hours. Fixed wing and satellite overflights Tuesday night did not detect a great deal of heat.

This is the first photo we have published of Tanker 167, an Aeroflite RJ85, and we have very few of Tankers 93 and 96.

Thanks Tim.

Air Tanker 93 at Medford Oregon
Air Tanker 93 at Medford Oregon September 7, 2019. Photo by Tim Crippin.
Air Tanker 96 at Medford Oregon
Air Tanker 96 at Medford Oregon September 7, 2019. Photo by Tim Crippin.

P-3 drops retardant on the Swedes Fire

This photo of Air Tanker 23, a P-3 Orion, was taken on the Swedes Fire southeast of Oroville, California.

We are trying to confirm the details but we are led to believe it was taken either September 7 or 8 by John Kerpa or Gary Thomas.

On September 7 the aircraft delivered 10 loads of retardant and accumulated six hours of flight time. Those were the first drops by a P-3 since the Forest Service cancelled the contract the federal government had with Aero Union in June, 2011.

More information about the return of the P-3 air tankers on September 7.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Norm. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Mixing air tankers with racing aircraft at Reno

(Above: Tankers 131 and 107 come in and out of the reloading pits while Tanker 162 is on final approach. Screengrab from the video below.)

Many of the air tankers working the Walker Fire south of Susanville, California are reloading with retardant at the Reno Stead Airport. The situation at the airport is a little different from most air tanker bases, in that earlier this week qualifying was underway for the Reno National Championship Air Races which meant small aircraft were racing around at low levels over the airport while the tanker base was still servicing the incoming and departing air tankers.

As explained in the video below, there was a Temporary Flight Restriction in effect at the airport but the tankers were allowed to come and go under the direction of an air traffic control system.

Some of the air tankers seen in the video are Aeroflite RJ85, T-162; Coulson C-130Q , T-131; Aero Air MD-87, T-107; and Coulson B-737, T-137.

As of Friday night September 9 the Walker Fire had burned 43,931 acres 17 miles south of Susanville, California.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dave. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Until Saturday a P-3 air tanker had not dropped on a fire since 2011

Air Tanker 23 owned by Airstrike Firefighters dropped on the Red Bank Fire

P-3 Orion air tanker T-23
Air tanker 23 testing over McClellan, August, 2018. Photo by Sergio Maraschin.

A P-3 Orion air tanker was very busy in Northern California Saturday September 7. Tanker 23, after starting the day at Sacramento McClellan Airport, departed at 11:42 a.m. PDT and arrived over the Red Bank Fire at 12:09 p.m. PDT. By 12:20 p.m. it had landed at Redding. Then according to the FlightAware activity log it made five more trips from Redding to the Red Bank Fire or the nearby South Fire 30 to 40 miles southwest of the airport. After that it began working on the Swedes Fire 7 miles east-southeast of Oroville and reloading at Chico. The last time we checked it appeared that it completed at least eight sorties Saturday. Quite a reintroduction to aerial firefighting! (UPDATE: we received word the aircraft completed 10 sorties, and flew for six hours total time on September 7.)

In the tweet below, the photographer captured Tanker 23, a P-3 Orion.

Swedes Fire
Swedes Fire, 6:37 p.m. PDT Sept. 7, 2019. Nevada Seismo Lab.

Bill Douglas, President of Airstrike Firefighters, confirmed that the drops T-23 made today are the first a P-3 has made over an actual fire since the Forest Service cancelled the contract the federal government had with Aero Union in June, 2011. After Aero Union went bankrupt UAC/Blue Aerospace bought seven of the eight P-3s that were still basically in one piece. Since then four of them have ended up in the hands of Airstrike Firefighters (Tankers 17, 21, & 23) and Buffalo Airways (T-22) and are being resurrected as air tankers. Airstrike Firefighters has an agreement to purchase the remaining three (00, 25 & 27) from UAC/Blue Aerospace if that appears to be a good business decision after the first batch of P-3s are restored.

Tanker 23 reloading
Air Tanker 23, a P-3, reloading September 7, 2019 at either Redding or Chico. Airstrike photo.

The work on Tankers 22, 23, 21, and 17 has been or will be done at the Airstrike facilities at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Obviously T-23 is done and Scott A. Schorzman, Airstrike VP for Business Development, said the work on T-22 is nearly done. When finished it will be operated by Airstrike.

Mr. Douglas said T-17 does not presently have a tank, so that is one obstacle that has to be overcome. If you’re keeping score at home, T-17 will have to take on a new number since another tanker has grabbed it during the 8-year hiatus.

Airstrike Firefighters has Call When Needed Contracts with four states, California, Colorado, Alaska, and Oregon.

Congratulations to UAC/Blue Aerospace for saving the P-3 from the scrap heap, and to AirStrike and Buffalo Airways for bringing them back to life.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom and Norm. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Excellent photo of 737 air tanker at work


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#coulsonaviation in action!!

A post shared by Coulson Aviation (@coulsonaviation) on

This is Air Tanker 137, a B-737 operated by Coulson Aviation. It’s one of two 737s they have converted to air tankers. They sold the other one to New South Wales in Australia a few months ago.

This aircraft, T-137, made the first ever drop on a fire by a 737 November 22, 2018 during the recent 2018-2019 Australian summer while it was on contract down there before the other 737 was delivered to NSW. It made its first drop in the United States around the first of August this year.

Britt Coulson said the company substituted T-137 for their T-132, an L-382G that was on a Call When Needed Contract, taking the place of it on the list.

Obviously Coulson Instagrammed the photo, but if someone knows the photographer’s name, we will add it here.

Super scoopers arrive in Southern California

super scoopers los angeles county
Water-scooping air tankers from Quebec arrive in Los Angeles County. Los Angeles County Fire Department photo.

For at least a decade or two the Los Angeles County Fire Department has contracted for two water-scooping air tankers to come on duty beginning around the first of September. This year is no exception — two of them are now in place, the department announced Sunday, on loan from the province of Quebec.

Video shot from air tanker as it drops on the R-1 Ranch Fire

This is video shot August 29 from the Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) piloted by Jim Watson on the R-1 Ranch Fire 13 miles northeast of Susanville, California. He was working out of the Air Tanker Base at Chester, California. You may notice that the aircraft is following another SEAT that makes a drop ahead of him.

If you are having trouble viewing the video, you can also see it on YouTube.