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Mon, Oct. 14

Supertanker could be next wildfire tool

PRESCOTT — Everyone in the wildland firefighting world seems to have heard of the proposed new "supertanker," but few know much about it yet.

Evergreen International Aviation, Inc. has converted a Boeing 747 into what it's calling the "Supertanker."

The company hopes to get a U.S. Forest Service contract and have the air tanker ready to battle wildfires this season, although it probably won't be ready in time for the Southwest's fire season, a spokesman said.

"I don't know quite what to think about it, to be honest," said Don Howard, commander of the Arizona Wildfire Academy, during an opening reception for the academy Monday at the Sand Trap restaurant next to the Prescott airport. "I mean, it's a huge aircraft."

The existing heavy air tankers that the Forest Service contracts for wildland firefighting look and sound impressive enough, dropping down to 200 feet to send 3,000 gallons of fire retardant on blazes.

The Supertanker, however, can carry 24,000 gallons of retardant and Evergreen says it will be able to drop loads from as low as 800 feet.

"Wow!" was the first comment that came out of the mouth of Jim Paxon, who recently retired from the Forest Service after gaining notoriety as the spokesperson during Arizona's Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002.

"The big question everybody asks is, "Will this work?" related Chuck Allen, air tanker base manager at the Forest Service's Prescott Fire Center. "My feeling is, if they want it to work, it'll work," noting that Evergreen is one of the largest aviation companies in the world.

"I personally think it's a good idea," Allen said.

The Supertanker wouldn't be able to land at the Prescott airport because the loaded plane would crush the runway pavement, Allen said.

Also, the Prescott runway is 7,600 feet long and the Supertanker needs at least 8,000 feet, although Prescott is planning to expand its runway to 9,300 feet.

The Supertanker still could fight fires in rural areas by flying out of Arizona airports built for the military.

Del Hunt, whose air tanker is based in Prescott during its wildfire season, also likes the Supertanker idea. Hunt pilots a 1947 Douglas DC-6, and is a firm believer that transport planes are better firefighting tools than former military planes.

Brian Lauber of the State Land Department's firefighting team said if the Supertanker had been on board last year at the start of the Aspen Fire in southern Arizona, it could have saved hundreds of homes.

Others worry about how the plane will handle itself in the air turbulence that wildfires produce.

Even at 800 feet, wildfires can produce a lot of turbulence and hot air making it hard for the Supertanker to gain elevation after dropping its retardant, Paxon said.

Howard saw an Evergreen presentation about the Supertanker with fellow members of the Southwest Incident Management Team last month in Scottsdale. He worried about the impact that 24,000 gallons of retardant would have on fire behavior.

"Bigger is not better … it looks better," said Mark Mullenis, commander of the Colorado Wildfire Academy who is visiting Arizona's academy this week.

He figured the Supertanker's slurry would hit a fire "like a Tsunami."

A waiter at Monday's academy mixer who also is a local pilot said he was talking about the Supertanker recently with four friends because it's such a hot topic in aviation.

"Evergreen's not stupid," he said. "They're not going to throw millions and millions of dollars at it if it's not going to work."

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