California Fires Rage as World’s Biggest as Biggest SuperTanker Grounded

747 firefighting plane fire retardant (Dan Sternberg / Associated Press)
Dan Sternberg / Associated Press

Fires rage across California as the biggest firefighting SuperTanker in the world is sitting idle at an Arizona Airport.

The firefighting capability of the State of California, county fire authorities, the U.S. Forest Service, along with inmate volunteers, is completely maxed out trying to handle ten major uncontained and four contained wildfires burning across hundreds of thousands of acres in California.

The largest has been the Detwiler Fire near Yosemite, which burned over 76,500 acres and is only 50 percent contained. That is closely followed by the 18,430 acre Whittier Fire near Santa Barbara,which is now 87 percent contained, according to an update on the Cal Fire’s incident information web site at 8:00 a.m. PDT Monday.

Cal FIRE backs up the human effort each year with an air armada composed of 23 Grumman S-2T airtankers that can each drop 1,200 gallons of water; two 11 UH-1H Super Huey helicopters that can drop about 600 gallons of water; and 14 OV-10A quick response air-tactical aircraft based at 13 helibases that can be deployed to provide oversight to scout or fight any fire within 20 minutes.

When nature’s wrath is so great that it swamps state and federal firefighting resources, as it has this year, California normally brings in a Boeing 747-100, tail number 947, that has fought fires from the Andes to Israel since 2009. Nicknamed the “SuperTanker,” the ultimate firefighting weapon can dump 19,400 gallons of a fire-retardant slurry mix composed of chemical salts, water, clay or a gum-thickening agent, and a coloring agent on a fire in a single pass.

But the SuperTanker is sitting at Pinal Airpark in Marana, Arizona due to the bankruptcy restructure of its owner and what looks like foot-dragging in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification process.

Its owner, Evergreen Supertanker Services, took out the existing sprayer system from the increasingly obsolete 747-100 and transplanted it in early 2015 into an even bigger 747-400 freighter, tail number 979, that can dump 20,000 gallons of retardant in a single pass.

But Evergreen filed for bankruptcy and was internally reorganized as Global SuperTanker Services, LLC In August 2015. Cal Fire does have had a “call-when-need” agreement with the SuperTanker, but the Global has not received its FAA certification, according to Capitol Public Radio.

Global’s President Jim Wheeler told Capital Public Radio that he has been trying to convince the FAA’s Interagency Air Tanker Board to raise the current maximum tanker load on an airtanker from 5,000 gallons of retardant to 20,000 gallons. Although regulators may still have some concern regarding the SuperTanker’s ability to fly over fires over mountainous terrain, the pilots and crew have nine years of experience against the toughest fires on the planet.

Wheeler stated that he is cautiously optimistic that Global will receive FAA certification this week, and that the SuperTanker can soon join the battle against California wildfires.



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