There have been some interesting developments in the supertanker saga. After flying only one day on the Day Fire, the DC-10 Supertanker never received another call to drop retardant. Finally sensing that they would not receive any further calls to drop retardant, Ten Tanker management sent their crew home in disgust, as mentioned in a previous posting. The Day Fire is now considered contained and all but extinguished, but the fallout is just beginning. The current suppression cost has exceeded $70 million on a fire which, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) management, could have been extinguished within the first three days of it’s ignition by use of the DC-10 Supertanker. With people asking why this fire was allowed to expand into a monster that swallowed over 160,000 acres of wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest, the US Forest Service (USFS) faces some tough questions. At a time when not one but two supertankers were available (the DC-10 and the 747), why was USFS playing games with contracts? The 747 folks were told their contract was null and void when the National Fire Preparedness Level dropped below a “4” (as of today it’s a “2”), an event that occurred at the peak of the Day Fire battles in Lockwood Valley, while at the same time they failed to call on the DC-10, which could have been requisitioned through the “On Call” contract Ten Tanker folks have with the CDF. Was it a bureaucratic mix-up that caused this to happen? Was it a matter of money ($52,000 per day for the DC-10)? Nobody in either forestry organization is talking on the record.
In the meantime, some local developments could change the picture completely. At a ceremony at Van Nuys Airport (Media Day For Firefighting Aircraft), LA County Fire Chief Michael Freeman expressed an interest in the DC-10 in regards to something that had not been discussed before – weather modification over a fire. He posed an interesting question: Could the DC-10 (and presumably the 747) be used to alter the fire conditions by performing a higher-altitude drop than was currently performed, perhaps at 1,000 feet? The 747 literature hints at this. After discussions with Bill Ward, President of Exit Safe, who is a technical guy for Phos-Chek, the possibilities became clearer. Bill stated that by using a gel mixture instead of straight water, a supertanker could drop from higher altitude and bring down the temperature while boosting humidity locally. Chief Freeman’s idea was to have a supertanker drop precede a swarm of smaller fixed- and rotor-wing air-tankers which would then attack the hot spots of the fire directly. Could this concept work? It’s untried, but shows possibilities. Bill said that Phos-Chek would be willing to work with both fire agencies and supertanker reps to find out. This could open a whole new chapter in wildland firefighting – combined air-assaults. Perhaps local city and county governments could band together to do something the feds and state seem unwilling or unable to do; finance the $5 million price for an annual DC-10 contract if this technique proves feasible. Drop me a line about what you think of this idea at firstname.lastname@example.org.