July 20, 2006 In a first for fire fighting, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) Sunday used a modified DC-10 to drop fire retardant on a significant blaze known as “the Sawtooth Fire”. Three separate external tanks with a capacity of 12,000 U.S. gallons of retardant were utilized during the two separate flights by Tanker 910 so it could build a buffer of retardant between the Fire and the community of Big Bear while allowing ground crews to get in position to build a containment line. The modified jet is one of two new jet-based services which were vying to be the first to demonstrate their effectiveness. The jets are a new tool developed in recent times to combat the destructiveness of fire in the United States where annually there are 80,000 wildland fires which destroy around six million acres and cost US$1.2 billion in fire suppression costs. The true cost of wildfire is much higher as when timber, tourism and property losses are added annual figures run near to US$10 billion.
The DC-10 is a 31-year-old former American Airlines passenger jet that was jointly developed over the past four years by Omni Air International of Tulsa, Oklahoma and Cargo Conversions LLC, a freighter conversion company based in San Carlos, California.
Both companies have been working on the program for two years with input from the National Interagency Fire Center. The original passenger jet airframe was reinforced to hold the belly tank and drop system, with assistance from Aircraft Technical Service and Erickson Air-Crane, makers of the famous Erickson S-64 Aircrane Helitanker (AKA Elvis).
Tanker 910 can be fully loaded with 45 of water inside eight minutes and it has a 500 nautical mile operating radius. The company eventually hopes to have a fleet of five such aircraft, based in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida and Washington, which could respond to any wildfire threat in the country inside sixty minutes. The aircraft can drop the entire load in eight seconds or strategically deposit multiple, partial drops.
Tanker 910 was leased for the day by CDF at a cost of US$52,000 but the economics make absolute sense with the Sawtooth Fire threatening the community of Big Bear.
Lightning started the Sawtooth Fire on July 9 and at the time the drops were made, had caused one fatality, consumed 62,000 acres and destroyed 58 residences and 171 outbuildings in San Bernardino County with property loss estimated at US$8,702,000.
In addition to the DC-10, there are 85 fire crews; 206 engines; 8 airtankers; 15 helicopters and 35 bulldozers battling the blaze, with 60 percent containment, all being managed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Incident Command Team 8 in conjunction with CDF, San Bernardino County Fire, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's office, U.S. Forest Service, CHP, LA County Fire, CA Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Red Cross, and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services
A four-member flight crew aboard Tanker 910 worked in coordination with CDF support personnel to drop the retardant. The aircraft was deployed at the request of CDF Incident Command Team 8, which has been coordinating firefighting efforts on the Sawtooth Fire.
“This is the first time in history a DC-10 had been utilized in a firefighting capacity,” said Director Ruben Grijalva of CDF. “We are always examining firefighting tools that can help save lives and property. Once our staff certified the aircraft we made it available to the Incident Command Team.”
Incident Commander Rick Henson made a tactical decision that the Sawtooth Fire would be an appropriate and conducive venue to test the aircraft due to the terrain, weather and fire conditions. “I was fortunate enough to watch this first live fire drop from a nearby helicopter and was very impressed with how much retardant was dropped," said Henson. "I immediately directed my staff to evaluate the retardant’s coverage on the ground. Preliminary reports indicate the DC-10 retardant met the objective of slowing the fire’s spread.”
Tanker 910 was certified or “carded” today by the CDF Aviation Management Unit after the aircraft was tested repeatedly with numerous drops in the desert as well as runs on higher elevations. Tanker 910 is certified by the FAA and meets the same maintenance standards as passenger-carrying planes of the identical size.
The other business vying for its share of the US$1.2 billion spent on fighting wildfires each year is Evergreen Aviation which has a highly modified Boeing 747 currently on display at the Farnsborough Air Show.