Hawaii Mars’ fire­fight­ing days done

Times Colonist - - Islander - ERIC PLUM­MER

Af­ter a 54-year ca­reer of fight­ing for­est fires across North Amer­ica, the Hawaii Mars bomber sat on the shore of Sproat Lake this sum­mer due to the prov­ince not re­new­ing the air­craft’s con­tract.

In a news­let­ter re­leased last week by the bomber’s owner, Coul­son Air Tankers, CEO Wayne Coul­son re­flected on the Mars air­craft’s his­tory, con­ced­ing that the plane’s fire­fight­ing days are over. The air­craft has helped douse for­est fires in Bri­tish Columbia, Al­berta, Cal­i­for­nia and Mex­ico.

“I can say that the Mars taught us a lot about the fire­fight­ing busi­ness, and now the su­pe­rior gen­tle gi­ant of the in­dus­try is look­ing to­ward re­tire­ment,” wrote Coul­son.

With a 27,200-litre dump ca­pac­ity, the Mars bomber has at­tained iconic sta­tus in Western Canada, par­tic­u­larly in the Al­berni Val­ley, where the air­craft is sta­tioned. As wild­fires rage across B.C. this sum­mer, a pe­ti­tion launched in Port Al­berni gar­nered over 19,000 names ask­ing that the prov­ince re­new the Mars bomber’s con­tract for an­other five years.

In July, Port Al­berni res­i­dent Chris Ale­many de­liv­ered the pe­ti­tion to Pre­mier Christy Clark’s con­stituency of­fice in west Kelowna.

“While I don’t think for a minute that any­one be­lieved the gov­ern­ment would change its mind, it did, how­ever, pro­vide some clo­sure to the fire­fight­ing icon and the many won­der­ful men and women who served in the Mars pro­gram over the decades,” Coul­son said.

De­spite the public pres­sure, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment has not backed down from its de­ci­sion to leave the Mars bomber out the fire­fight­ing fleet.

A state­ment re­leased by the gov­ern­ment as the pe­ti­tion was grow­ing said the Mars bomber was out­dated and cum­ber­some for the cur­rent for­est fire de­mands in B.C.

In­stead of us­ing the mas­sive air tanker this year, four smaller Fire Boss air­craft were con­tracted from Con­air of Ab­bots­ford, which the prov­ince said can ac­cess at least 10 times more bod­ies of wa­ter in B.C. than the Hawaii Mars be­cause of their su­pe­rior ma­noeu­ver­abil­ity.

The prov­ince has re­lied on the Fire Bosses heav­ily this sum­mer, send­ing the four planes to blazes in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries early in the sea­son be­fore fires es­ca­lated in B.C. On Thurs­day night one of th­ese Con­air planes crashed while at­tend­ing to the Jor­gensen Creek fire in the Cari­bou re­gion. A fa­tal­ity was not re­ported from the in­ci­dent.

The Mars bomber was orig­i­nally de­signed by the U.S. Navy for air trans­port ser­vice nearly 70 years ago, but was con­verted to a wa­ter bomber in 1959 when ac­quired by B.C.’s MacMil­lan Bloedel. Coul­son Air Tankers pur­chased the Hawaii Mars and its twin the Phillip­ine Mars in 2007.

Lo­cal in­ter­est to see the Mars bombers fly once more has been grow­ing among on­line fo­rums, and Coul­son ex­pects the public will get their chance this fall when the Phillip­ine is pre­pared for a fi­nal flight across the Rocky Moun­tains for its new home at an avi­a­tion mu­seum in Pen­sacola, Florida.

PHILLIP WOOL­GAR, AL­BERNI VAL­LEY TIMES

Wayne Coul­son said the public will likely get a last chance to see the Phillip­ine Mars fly this fall.

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