Where is the Global SuperTanker? It's the incident commander's call

FILE - This May 5, 2016, file photo provided by Global Supertanker Services shows a Boeing 747 making a demonstration water drop at Colorado Springs Airport in Colorado Springs, Colo. (Hiroshi Ando/Global Super Tanker Services LLC via AP, File)

It seems like common sense during wildfire season, if you have a huge plane that can drop more than 19,000 gallons of water or fire retardant, why not use it?

It's a question that sparked some debate this week on social media and during press conferences, as crews battled the fast-moving Substation Fire near The Dalles.

The Global SuperTanker is a Boeing 747 jumbo jet converted for aerial firefighting, capable of carrying more than 19,000 gallons of liquid, flying at least 4,000 miles in a single fueling and dropping a line of water or fire retardant three miles long. The California-based company says it can fly within 200 feet of the ground and through mountainous terrain.

The SuperTanker falls into the VLAT or Very Large Airtanker category, along with the DC-10 aircraft.

The jumbo jet has flown fires around the world, most notably in South America, and in several states in the U.S., including Oregon.

In early July, it was called to fight the Klamathon Fire, and prevent flames from spreading further into the state.

Oregon Department of Forestry Fire Protection Division Chief Doug Grafe told reporters the plane's use was successful.

"We lost 84 structures in California. That fire burned 32,000 acres, $32 million in suppression costs," Grafe said of the Klamathon Fire. "In Oregon, [it] burned 2,000 acres on that (side of the) fire, and that’s when we flew the SuperTanker. It has been very effective."

Local, state and federal authorities and agencies must generally sign an agreement of some sort to use the plane.

The state of Oregon has a "call when needed" agreement with the company. This agreement does not guarantee exclusivity and can be more expensive per hour, but it does not cost anything unless it's used.

Grafe says if an agency or jurisdiction is allowed to call for the plane, it is up to the fire's incident commander to make the call.

"Depending on the landscape, the smoke conditions, the wind, all those come into play," Grafe said of the commander's decision to use the aircraft. "Timing is important for those large air tankers."

ODF’s Aviation Manager Neal Laugle told FireAviation.com in April that contracted aircraft flew 1,477 hours on firefighting missions for ODF in 2017, more than 100 hours above average. For 2018, the agency has contracted the same number of aircraft as last year.

“We have 27 aircraft based across the state, including helicopters, fixed-wing detection planes, single-engine air tankers and a large airtanker, all of which we’ve secured for our exclusive use," Laugle told the online publication. "We also have call-when-needed agreements with a number of companies for additional firefighting aircraft. Among these agreements is one for the use of a 747 modified to carry 19,000 gallons of retardant should the situation warrant.”

ODF will continue to have access to aviation resources from other states and federal agencies upon request.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, six airtankers are currently assigned to the Northwest (Oregon & Washington), two VLATs and four Large Airtankers (LATs).

  • 2- Very Large Airtankers (VLATS), 2-DC-10s
  • 4- Large Airtankers (LATS), 1-BAe-146; 1-MD-87; and 2-RJ85s

The six aircraft are not only reserved for fighting fire on federal lands, but private, local and state as well.

USDA Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management spokesperson told KATU the federal agency is not currently under contract with Global SuperTanker.

Jones says the agency is accepting proposals from airtanker vendors until July 25. Proposals will be reviewed and evaluated, and contracts will be awarded as soon as possible after that, but there is no estimated timeframe at this time.

"Federal government contracting is a highly complex process, particularly for high-dollar-value contracts like Airtankers. It is nothing like private sector contracting," Jones wrote in an email. "The USDA Forest Service has been working diligently since Global SuperTanker Services, LLC’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) protest was resolved to develop and issue [Request for Proposals] in compliance with the GAO decision and recommendations."

Jones said in 2017, the SuperTanker flew wildfire suppression missions on a number of wildfires on national forest lands in California. The plane was under contract by CAL FIRE (California’s wildland firefighting agency).

"Global SuperTanker Services, LLC is still on a CAL FIRE contract and could potentially fly wildfire suppression missions on that contract on National Forest System lands in California -- and potentially on National Forest System lands in other states -- again this year," Jones said.

Global SuperTanker did not respond to KATU's request for comment by deadline regarding contract negotiations between the company and the USDA Forest Service. It did not respond to questions regarding average estimated cost either.

ABC affiliate KRDO in Colorado Springs obtained a 2017 contract between the city and Global SuperTanker, LLC. The station reported the normal hourly fee for using the supertanker, including fuel, was $23,500, and that the clock begins from the time the aircraft leaves the hangar until it returns. The city was not billed unless it is used.

The city agreed to a "call when needed" agreement in 2017, (similar to what Oregon signed in 2018). If Colorado Springs wanted exclusive use of the supertanker, the cost was to be $38,900 per day, with up to 12 hours of use included per day.

According to a 2012 USDA aircraft fact sheet, the DC-10, the largest firefighting aircraft currently available to the USDA Forest Service, costs $13,000 per hour and carries approximately 10,000 gallons of liquid.

Note: Cost varies depending on length and exclusivity of contracts.

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