The video below shows the effects of air tanker drops in timber. The first part shows a dozer line or road on the edge of the Glass Fire in Northern California. Then you will see where red fire retardant dropped by air tankers has slowed the advance of the fire. When it can be done safely, firefighters on the ground or on dozers will need to construct a bare-earth fireline where the fire has burned into or through the retardant. Aircraft dropping water or retardant do not put out a fire, they can only slow the spread, and only if the wind is not very strong.
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Dylan Phelps sent us these photos that he captured at various Northern California airports in the first part of September as our firefighters were going up against one of the most vicious wildfire seasons on record.
Two C-130 aircraft from the California National Guard were activated July 22 to serve as air tankers using the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS). They have been available for wildfire support at Sacramento McClellan Airport.
The 747 Supertanker has been flying firefighting missions out of McClellan almost every day for the last week.
The 747 Supertanker (GST944) has completed its assignment assisting the firefighters in Bolivia. It is scheduled to fly back to U.S. Monday night after arriving in South America on August 23.
Tanker 944 is scheduled to depart from Viru Viru Int’l (VVI) at 3:06 PM MDT Monday October 14 heading for San Bernardino International (SBD) with an estimated arrival at 12:04 AM PDT Tuesday October 15. (UPDATE: it appears the departure will be delayed, and the aircraft will probably arrive at SBD Tuesday afternoon.)
The 747 Supertanker arrived in Bolivia at 1:37 a.m. local time Friday August 23 at Viru Viru International Airport outside the capital city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and began sorties on fires later in the day.
It appears from the photos above that the method of filling the 19,200-gallon tank may be similar to that used in 2017 when the 747 was working on fires in Chile. In that case there was no robust infrastructure for the distribution of water, so the Santiago Fire Department established a system of portable water tanks filled by water trucks. Fire engines then pumped water from the tanks to the aircraft.
Air Tanker 944, the 747 Supertanker, arrived in Bolivia overnight to assist firefighters who are battling numerous wildfires across the country. It landed at 1:37 a.m. local time Friday at Viru Viru International Airport outside the capital city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
It departed from Sacramento McClellan Airport and flew non-stop at 39,000 feet at 510 to 610 mph.
Air tankers do not put out vegetation fires. However under ideal conditions, especially slow to moderate wind speeds, they can retard the spread of a fire for a period of time allowing firefighters on the ground to move in and actually suppress the fire. If there are no ground forces in the area, the effect of an air tanker dropping water or fire retardant is temporary. The fire can often eventually burn through or around the area where the liquid was applied. During strong winds, the retardant is blown off target and burning embers can travel a mile downwind and start spot fires.
(Originally published at 10:24 PDT August 22, 2019)
The huge air tanker, identified as Tanker 944, that can carry up to 19,200 gallons (72,680 liters) of water or fire retardant is scheduled to depart from Sacramento McClellan Airport at 10:45 a.m. PDT Thursday and arrive in Viru Viru International Airport in Bolivia at about 6:42 p.m. local time.
The aircraft is being leased from Global Supertanker. According to laRazón, the company required an up front guarantee of $800,000 US dollars.
The first drop it made on an actual fire was in Spain in July 2009 while on a world tour to introduce the aircraft to wildland firefighters. Later on that trip it dropped retardant on the Railbelt Complex in Alaska. At that time the aircraft was operated by Evergreen. Since then it has been purchased by Global Supertanker and upgraded from a 747-100 to a 747-400, but the retardant delivery system is essentially the same.
The article was edited to show that the 747 is scheduled to go to Bolivia, not Brazil.
The report concluded that a low drop by the 747 Supertanker uprooted and broke off trees and limbs
(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.
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)