Over its 73-year history Castle Air Force Base just northwest of Merced, California has hosted a variety of large aircraft on the 30 parking pads, including B-52 bombers and KC-135 refueling air tankers. After the base closed in 1995 it became known as Castle Airport, operated by Merced County.
In 2013 when the 257,000-acre Rim Fire was burning nearby, the airport started to host a different kind of air tanker, firefighting aircraft that drop retardant on wildfires. Last year and this year it was designated as a Call When Needed air tanker base, activated only when specifically needed. The taxiways, parking areas, and the 11,802-foot runway, all designed to support large bombers, make it a facility capable of handling quite a few Large and Very Large air tankers, including C-130s, MD-87s, BAe-146s, and DC-10s. The reloading base has been set up just northwest of the 30 B-52 parking pads. (map)
This year while hosting the 11,600-gallon DC-10s and other air tankers, the base has pumped almost half a million gallons of retardant into aircraft. A Very Large Air Tanker such as a DC-10 departing the airport in the center of the state could reach the Oregon or Mexican borders within about 45 to 50 minutes.
The two DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers at Castle today, Tankers 910 and 911, have been there often over the last several weeks, however they do move around to other bases depending on the need. Occasionally this year they have both attacked the same fire, placing over 23,000 gallons of retardant on the vegetation as the pair assisted firefighters on the ground. The two aircraft both dropped on the fast moving Oregon Fire near Weaverville, California shortly after it started late in the day on August 24. Their air drops along with efforts from other aircraft and of course boots on the ground held the fire to 580 acres. Today it is 85 percent contained.
Rick Hatton, President of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said their third DC-10, Tanker 912, is in the process of being “carded” by the Interagency AirTanker Board at Albuquerque, New Mexico. Engineers are fine-tuning the computer programming for the three external retardant tanks. Next week, he said, it should be ready to go and will be brought on as an exclusive use air tanker under the “additional equipment” provision of the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest service.
The video below reports on the Junction Fire in California, and how air tankers played a vital role in minimizing the damage.
National Public Radio has an interesting article about air tankers. Below is an excerpt:
…Bill Hahnenberg, an incident commander with the Forest Service, was initially skeptical of this new generation of air tankers — he wasn’t sure how helpful they’d be in the fight against Western wildfires. Then, in August 2012, Hahnenberg was leading the fight against the Springs Fire in the Idaho mountains.
If firefighters hadn’t been able to get a handle on it quickly, there was a chance it would be unusually destructive: “There was a high likelihood we would have been managing that fire for, rather than a few more days, probably a few more weeks,” he says.
Hahnenberg says the fire was at risk of jumping over a mountain and burning into two small towns. He had just a few hours to get fire retardant on the ground.
“At that point we’re looking for the biggest, heaviest hammer we could bring to the table,” he says.
That hammer was sitting at the Boise airport, about 40 miles away. It was a giant DC-10 air tanker the government had just hired to fight such fires. Two retardant drops later, the fire was boxed in and ground crews began to get the upper hand. In the end, the Springs Fire turned out to be sort of a nonevent — a sign of success.
“Once an air tanker has contained that fire, we never see that, because it doesn’t show up on the news,” says Scott Fisher, who oversaw the Forest Service’s air tanker program until his retirement this summer.
The DC-10 used on the Springs Fire was part of the agency’s effort to grow and modernize the tanker fleet. In 2000, the government had more than 40 air tankers on contract. But many of those were built during World War II and the Cold War, and two crashes of so-called “legacy” air tankers led many to be parked for good. The number of air tankers would later fall to just nine.
Fisher says that number was simply too low. “Not having sufficient resources caused the system to be stretched,” he says. “And certainly because of that there were fires that we just did not get to.”