Green Sheet report released on fatality following retardant drop

The report concluded that a low drop by the 747 Supertanker uprooted and broke off trees and limbs

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

(Originally published at 4:15 MDT September 14, 2018, and updated at 7:43 MDT September 14, 2018)

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has released what they call a “Green Sheet” report about the fatality and injuries that were caused by falling tree debris resulting from an air tanker’s retardant drop. The accident occurred on the Ranch Fire which was part of the Mendocino Complex of Fires east of Ukiah, California. The report was uploaded to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center on September 13, 2018 exactly one month after the August 13 accident.

A firefighter from Utah, Draper City Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett, was killed when a low drop 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.

747 supertanker palmer fire
File photo: The 747 SuperTanker drops on the Palmer Fire south of Calimesa and Yucaipa in southern California, September 2, 2017. Photo by Cy Phenice, 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.

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.

We reached out with some questions to Global Supertanker, the company that operates the 747 Supertanker, and they gave us this statement:

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 former President and CEO of the company, Jim Wheeler, no longer works there as of September 1, 2018. The company is owned by Alterna Capital Partners LLC, of Wilton, Conn.

(Updated at 7:43 MDT September 14, 2018 to include the statement from Global Supertanker that we received at 7:35 p.m. MDT September 14, 2018)

Photos of air tankers at McClellan

Above: Air Tankers 102 (MD-87) and 134 (C-130)

Don Hosford took these photos of firefighting aircraft at Sacramento McClellan Airport August 31, 2018.

air tankers sacramento mcclellan airport
Air Tankers 23 (P-3) and 944 (747)
air tankers sacramento mcclellan airport
Air Tanker 914, a DC-10
air tankers sacramento mcclellan airport
Air Tanker 118, an HC-130H

Continue reading “Photos of air tankers at McClellan”

747 SuperTanker activated on CAL FIRE CWN contract

In the file photo above, 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.

CAL FIRE activated the 747 SuperTanker today, July 7, on a Call When Needed  (CWN) contract after it was carded by the agency. The aircraft has been hung up in the annual recertification process this year due to a required software addition. The approval, or carding, is temporary, pending resolution of the data software issue which helps track systems on the air tanker. The issue is not related to the actual retardant delivery system.

In addition to the CWN contract with CAL FIRE, GlobalSupertanker also has contracts with the states of Colorado and Oregon.

As this is written at  6:50 p.m. PDT July 7, Tanker 944 had just received a launch order and is en route to the Klamathon Fire on the Oregon/California state line.

Colorado signs contract with GlobalSupertanker

Above: the 747 SuperTanker takes off at McClellan at dawn on March 24, 2016 after attending the Aerial Firefighting Conference. Photo By Bill Gabbert.

Today officials in Colorado announced that the state has signed a contract with Global Supertanker for the use of the company’s 747 air tanker. The agreement is a Call When Needed arrangement, which means the aircraft will only be activated on an as-needed basis.

The 747 is in Sacramento this week going through the annual recertification and “carding” process with the U.S. Forest Service. When that is complete it would again be available on a CWN contract with the state of California. If they desired, the USFS could utilize it through interagency agreements with the state. The SuperTanker was used in 2017 by CAL FIRE on several fires.

The carding process is delayed this year because the SuperTanker needs a USFS required software addition. The SuperTanker team is working with Latitude Technologies(a USFS vendor) and the USFS to get the issue resolved as quickly as possible. In addition to the CWN contracts with California and now Colorado, GlobalSupertanker also has one with the county just south of Denver, Douglas County.

Firefighters in both California and Colorado have been very busy in recent weeks fighting  huge fires. It is unknown if the 747 would be immediately activated when the software addition is complete.

Global SuperTanker’s B747-400, The Spirit of John Muir, incorporates a patented system capable of delivering single or multiple payload drops aggregating 19,200 gallons of water, fire retardant, or suppressant. With a flying speed of 600 mph, the air tanker can reach any part of the globe in 20 hours or less or nearly any part of the U.S. in less than three hours.

On February 1, 2017 during a deployment in Chile the aircraft set what could be a world record for liquid dropped in a single day by a land-based air tanker at 138,400 gallons. The video below shows it pulling into the reload pit at Santiago after its seventh and final sortie that day, making 11 drops on fires near Concepcion, Navidad, and Matanzas.

Photos of the 747 SuperTanker at McClellan

Sergio Maraschin sent us these photos that he took of Air Tanker 944, a 747 SuperTanker, at Sacramento McClellan Airport in 2017. He believes the water drop was a demonstration at the airport.

Thanks Sergio!T-944 Supertanker 747 Sergio Maraschin T-944 Supertanker 747 Sergio Maraschin T-944 Supertanker 747 Sergio Maraschin

Supertanker to assist with California wine country wildfires

(Above: The 747 SuperTanker drops on the Palmer Fire south of Calimesa and Yucaipa in southern California, September 2, 2017. Photo by Cy Phenice, used with permission).

A 747 Supertanker will assist firefighters battling a series of fires that erupted overnight Sunday in California’s wine country.

Global Supertanker announced Monday morning it would assist with efforts to battle the Atlas Fire in Napa County, California. The fire broke out about 9:20 p.m. Sunday and quickly burned approximately 5,000 acres, fanned by high winds, CAL FIRE reported.  

The Atlas Fire is among a number of blazes that started Sunday night and Monday morning, forcing thousands of residents from their homes and leaving crews scrambling through the night to get a handle on the sheer number of fire starts.

The largest, the Tubbs Fire, scorched in excess of 20,000 acres within just a few hours, Santa Rosa Fire reported. The fast-moving fire forced the evacuation of area hospitals, closed schools and led officials to recall all city employees to help staff the emergency operations center.

Details about damages or injuries were not immediately available by daybreak Monday.

Outstanding photo of the 747 on the Palmer Fire (new: added videos)

(Originally published at 7:22 a.m. MDT September 5, 2017)

A few days ago Cy Phenice sent us an excellent photo of Air Tanker 944, the 747 SuperTanker, dropping on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California which we published September 3. Now we have another great photo of the huge airplane dropping on the fire.

It was taken by Leroy Leggit with a Nikon D810. He shot it at 1/800, F 5.6, using a 70-200mm lens at 150mm.

He said he took the photo from the top of a hill looking down at the aircraft.

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.

He told us:

I didn’t know anything about the 747 supertanker until it appeared to my right (at eye level) headed straight toward the fire… what an amazing and unexpected sight… I looked online and saw that it had only been in service for a few days.

The Palmer Fire was reported at 1:33 p.m. MDT September 2, 2017. It is nearly officially contained according to CAL FIRE after burning 3,874 acres.

This was the second fire the aircraft was used on after receiving certification and a contract from CAL FIRE. The 747 was dispatched from McClellan Air Field near Sacramento. According to FlightAware it cruised south at over 600 mph at times before dropping on the fire about an hour later, then reloaded at McClellan and completed a second sortie, dropping almost 19,000 gallons again, splitting the load into two drops.

(UPDATED at 10:07 a.m. MDT September 5, 2017)

After Johnny commented that videos are available, we checked and found these. The first one appears to be the same drop seen in the photo above.

747 assists firefighters on the Palmer Fire

Above: the 747 SuperTanker drops on the Palmer Fire south of Calimesa and Yucaipa in southern California, September 2, 2017. Photo by Cy Phenice, used with permission.

(Originally published at 12:50 p.m. MDT September 3, 2017.)

On September 2 the 747 SuperTanker was used on the second fire since receiving certification and a contract from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). The Palmer Fire was reported at 1:33 p.m. PDT Saturday and later that afternoon the Very Large Air Tanker was dispatched from McClellan Air Field near Sacramento. According to FlightAware it cruised south at over 600 mph at times before dropping on the fire about an hour later, then reloaded at McClellan and completed a second sortie, dropping almost 19,000 gallons again, splitting the load into two drops.

As of Sunday morning evacuations affecting about 100 homes and 450 residents were still in effect for the fire which has burned 3,300 acres about two miles south of Calimesa. CAL FIRE is in Unified Command with Redlands Fire Department, Beaumont Police Department, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office.

The working theory is the fire was caused by fireworks near Fisherman’s Retreat mobile home resort according to CAL FIRE.

On August 31 and September 1 the 747 completed at least three sorties to the Ponderosa fire near Manton, California which was the first time the aircraft had dropped on a wildfire in the United States since the retardant delivery system was removed from Evergreen’s 747-100 and reinstalled into a 747-400 operated by Global SuperTanker. In 2016 and earlier in 2017 it was used on fires in Israel and Chile.