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Big air tanker gets rare call to action

A converted DC-10 makes drops on the Esperanza blaze. The aircraft has been used sparingly this year.

October 28, 2006|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

A converted jumbo jet that drops up to 10 times as much fire retardant as traditional air tankers took to the air Friday to try to slow the wind-driven fire that has swept across thousands of acres in Riverside County, consuming homes, forcing evacuations and killing four firefighters.

After its crew was hastily mobilized, the DC-10 tanker -- which has a 12,000-gallon capacity and can lay down a chemical fire line half a mile long -- began making water drops Friday afternoon on ridgelines to prevent the fire from reaching stands of highly flammable trees killed by bark beetles.

The aircraft carries such a big payload that it is particularly effective in dropping long, uninterrupted lines of fire retardant, said Mike Jarvis, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "It slows down the fire, so the ground crews can get it," he said.

However, the same aircraft sat on a runway in Victorville for all but one day of the stubborn, monthlong federally controlled Day fire that devastated more than 162,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties after Labor Day.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Fire map: A map in Section A on Saturday showing the Esperanza wildfire's progression said the fire started Wednesday morning. The fire started Thursday morning.

State fire officials say the plane is the first jet and the largest air tanker used for fighting fires in the United States. Despite its potential, the plane has been used sparingly because of safety concerns stemming from two fatal air tanker crashes in 2002. The crashes led the federal government to ground its antiquated fleet of former military planes and impose strict requirements before allowing any tankers to take to the air.

The DC-10's owners have not been able to meet all the U.S. Forest Service's new airworthiness standards for the rigors of firefighting. But the company did contract with the CDF this year, and the plane, at $26,500 an hour, was used this summer.

Another even larger converted tanker, a Boeing 747 cargo jet with a 20,500-gallon tank, is also trying to complete federal reviews.

"They need to be able to fly, because we never have had such powerful tools to fight wildfires," said Tony Morris, founder of the nonprofit Wildfire Research Network in Topanga. "These are big guns, and when we needed them, as we did recently, they were missing. That is a shame."

In June 2002, the wings of a Lockheed C-130A Hercules fell off as it dropped retardant on a forest fire near Walker, Calif., killing three crew members. A month later, the left wing of a Consolidated Vultee P4Y Privateer broke away as it maneuvered to drop retardant near Estes Park, Colo., and both crew members died.

The old military surplus planes probably had succumbed to metal fatigue, federal investigators found. The accidents exposed gaping weaknesses in the system that had kept the nation's firefighting fleet airborne for decades.

In scathing reports, a government blue ribbon panel and the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management relied too heavily on contractors to assure the airworthiness of a privately owned fleet built from high-mileage military leftovers, resulting in an unacceptable safety record.

The federal government canceled contracts for all large tankers, then brought some back, leaving a fleet of 19 -- less than half the size in 2002. Officials have tried to counter the loss by adding smaller planes and helicopters.

Meanwhile, a number of aircraft companies began developing larger, faster air tankers to fill the void and tap into the federal government's annual $1.5-billion fire suppression effort.

Among them is the DC-10 owned by Oklahoma-based Omni Air International and Cargo Conversions of San Carlos, Calif.

Tom Harbour, Forest Service director of fire and aviation, said the 1974-vintage aircraft, which is based in Victorville, has flown 8,000 hours more than the manufacturer's design life of 60,000 hours. The federal agency wants more information showing it is airworthy.

"It is fundamentally because of that that we have concerns," he said, explaining that firefighting puts more stress on planes than carrying passengers.

In mid-July, while a 62,000-acre fire raged out of control in San Bernardino County, an appeal was made to the governor to call in the DC-10, and within a few days, the California Department of Forestry, which was not bound by the federal restrictions, had conducted reviews, flight tests and training before contracting with the operator.

State officials said they took precautions, dispatching a smaller CDF lead plane to guide retardant drops and assigning a CDF supervisor to ride in the DC-10. Hours after the contract was signed, the DC-10 was dropping retardant on the fire as it bore down on Big Bear Lake. Its performance was so good that the CDF summoned it to two more California fires and one in Washington state.

But during the first three weeks of September, as the Day fire tore through the Los Padres and Angeles national forests, the DC-10 remained on the ground, except for one day when the CDF deployed it to help protect Santa Paula and Ojai.

For days, Dick Albright, a retired aerospace engineer, watched as the fire approached his home in Lockwood Valley, and then he prepared his horses, cats and dogs for possible evacuation.

"Had they brought in the big tankers initially," he said, "they would have been able to put the fire down before it got a perimeter that was hundreds of miles long."

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