Mas­sive fire­fight­ing aid snuffed

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John Aguilar

COLORADO SPRINGS» With the abil­ity to drop nearly 20,000 gal­lons of wa­ter or re­tar­dant in a sin­gle pass, the Global Su­perTanker could be an air­borne, blaze-bat­tling be­he­moth on the front lines of the 416 fire near Du­rango — or any of the other wild­fires burn­ing in Colorado this week.

But the con­verted Boe­ing 747-400, which started life 26 years ago as a Japan Air­lines pas­sen­ger jet, in­stead sat Wed­nes­day on a run­way at Colorado Springs Air­port, its en­gines off and its cock­pit empty. Lack­ing a con­tract to fight fires on fed­eral land, the Global Su­perTanker ap­peared to be lit­tle more than an over­sized tar­mac or­na­ment.

“It’s very frus­trat­ing for us,” said Bob Soel­berg, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of Global Su­perTanker Ser­vices LLC, as he showed off the plane for a small group of re­porters Wed­nes­day. “We would like to be on (a fire).”

Global Su­perTanker, which car­ries nearly twice as much fire­fight­ing ca­pac­ity as the next big­gest air­craft that is used to fight fires — the DC-10 — hasn’t been com­pletely idle over the past year. It dropped re­tar­dant on a wild­fire in Cal­i­for­nia last fall and has been used to fight blazes in Chile and Is­rael. The com­pany, which launched its first fire­fight­ing op­er­a­tion less than two years ago, has “call when needed” con­tracts with Colorado Springs, along with Douglas and El Paso coun­ties, and it is ne­go­ti­at­ing a deal with the Colorado Division of Fire Pre­ven­tion and Con­trol to fight fires on state land.

But the big play in the wild­fire busi­ness is on

fed­eral for­est land in the United States, where stands of trees go on for miles and fuel is plen­ti­ful to sup­port a large con­fla­gra­tion. How­ever, ar­riv­ing at an agree­ment with the U.S. For­est Ser­vice to fight wild­fires on ter­ri­tory the agency over­sees, both in and out­side of Colorado, has been no easy feat.

First, the Colorado Springs­based com­pany had to chal­lenge a ca­pac­ity limit the For­est Ser­vice placed on the air tankers it would con­sider us­ing to fight fires. In Novem­ber, the U.S. Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice took Global Su­perTanker’s side when it de­ter­mined that the For­est Ser­vice’s de­ci­sion to ex­clude the jumbo air tanker — with its 19,200­gal­lon ca­pac­ity split be­tween two gi­ant on­board tanks — from com­pet­ing for fed­eral con­tracts wasn’t rea­son­able.

For­est Ser­vice spokes­woman Jennifer Jones said her agency will prob­a­bly re­lease re­quests for pro­posal for “large” and “very large” air tankers — which in­clude the Global Su­perTanker — by this Fri­day, but she said there is “no es­ti­mated time frame” for when con­tracts might be awarded or whether that might hap­pen be­fore the end of this year’s fire sea­son.

State of­fi­cials in April pro­jected that this year’s wild­fire sea­son could be the worst since 2012 and 2013, when dev­as­tat­ing blazes rav­aged ar­eas across the state.

A big part of the is­sue for the For­est Ser­vice is try­ing to de­ter­mine the most fi­nan­cially vi­able way to fight wild­fires. The agency has ac­cess to 25 air tankers na­tion­wide, Jones said, the largest of which holds 9,400 gal­lons. Tankers aren’t al­ways the best ap­proach, depend­ing on the na­ture of the fire or the ter­rain across which it’s burn­ing, she said.

“Air tankers play an im­por­tant role in wild­fire sup­pres­sion, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing ini­tial at­tack, by drop­ping fire re­tar­dant to re­duce the in­ten­sity and rate of spread of wild­fires so that wild­land fire­fight­ers on the ground can ac­cess ar­eas and con­struct con­tain­ment lines more safely near wild­fires,” Jones said. “Some­times air tankers can’t fly wild­fire sup­pres­sion mis­sions due to smoke or winds, and some­times their ef­fec­tive­ness may be di­min­ished in con­di­tions of high to ex­treme fire be­hav­ior and spread.”

Global Su­perTanker, while not dis­clos­ing the spe­cific costs to use its ser­vice, con­cedes that it is a more ex­pen­sive al­ter­na­tive to smaller wild­fire­at­tack­ing air­craft. But CEO Jim Wheeler said Global Su­perTanker, on a per­gal­lon ba­sis, is com­pet­i­tive.

“When sig­nif­i­cant fires in vir­tu­ally any ter­rain are rag­ing, the Su­perTanker can lay the long­est re­tar­dant lines in a sin­gle pass or mul­ti­ple drops ren­der­ing the low­est cost per gal­lon dropped,” he said. “Rather than sev­eral air­craft fly­ing to achieve the same thing, the size and speed of the Su­perTanker make the best value propo­si­tion.”

Bill Ste­wart, a forestry spe­cial­ist for the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley who has worked wild­fires in the Golden State for years, said the For­est Ser­vice has been try­ing for years to come up with the most ef­fec­tive and cost­ef­fec­tive fire­fight­ing strat­egy as wild­fires pick up in in­ten­sity and fre­quency.

“The For­est Ser­vice needs to fig­ure out if they are go­ing to use one big ham­mer or 20 small ham­mers,” he said in ref­er­ence to the makeup of the fire­fight­ing fleet.

Global Su­perTanker got a gen­er­ally pos­i­tive grade from the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, which hired the air­craft to fight fires in the state last year. It gave the plane an “above av­er­age” rat­ing in a fi­nal re­port, prais­ing its per­for­mance in heavy tim­ber, “wider than nor­mal drop pat­terns,” and “no­table per­for­mance in reload times and speed to fire traf­fic ar­eas.”

Com­pany of­fi­cials say Global Su­pertanker can reach any fire in the United States from its Colorado Springs base in 2 1/2 hours or less. And the four ejec­tion noz­zles on its belly, which can pro­vide a com­bined 60,000 pounds of thrust in get­ting wa­ter and re­tar­dant onto a fire, make for a pow­er­ful at­tack on flames.

Ben Miller, an aerial fire­fight­ing spe­cial­ist with the Colorado Division of Fire Pre­ven­tion and Con­trol, sees Global Su­perTanker as a vi­tal tool in a larger and di­verse aerial fleet that in­cludes scoop­ers, choppers and smaller tankers.

“Every fire is dif­fer­ent — from the fu­els to the ter­rain,” he said. “But any­time we can add a re­source in the state of Colorado that can put re­tar­dant on a fire, that’s a good thing.”

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Global Su­perTanker, a con­verted Boe­ing 747-400, sits on the tar­mac at Colorado Springs Air­port on Wed­nes­day.

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Capt. Bob Soel­berg, Global Su­perTanker’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent and pro­gram man­ager, stands on the flight deck of the con­verted Boe­ing 747­400 on Wed­nes­day.

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