Western U.S. states are preparing for the 2021 wildfire season. But the world’s largest firefighting plane isn’t. The aircraft’s maker may need to sell the craft. Time is running out for the Global SuperTanker’s primary mission: fighting fires from the sky.
During the 2020 season, 58,950 wildfires burned over 15,816 square miles out West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. (See CA Wildfires Rage On.) God mercifully spared many folks whose homes and properties were threatened.
The Global SuperTanker is one of several Very Large Airtankers used to fight wildfires from above by dropping fire retardant and water. The giant aircraft can dump up to 19,200 gallons of water or flame retardant in six seconds. It can fly as low as 200 feet above the ground and be refilled in just 13 minutes.
Firefighters use water on the fires. They also usually drop fire retardant next to or around the fires as an extra line of defense. Once the retardant dries, it denies oxygen to the vegetation to prevent the spread of fire.
Alterna Capital Partners LLC, the investment company that owns the plane, invested tens of millions of dollars into upgrading the Global SuperTanker. But the income—mostly from contracts with the U.S. government and California—did not produce enough profit for the company to continue funding the plane. So the group has decided to ground the SuperTanker.
Alterna has funded the plane’s operations and upgrades since 2016. Since the announcement, the firm has received several offers to buy the SuperTanker. Most want to turn it into a freight carrier aircraft, says Roger Miller, managing director at Alterna.
“The COVID crisis has led to a huge boom in the aircraft freighter market flying around PPE (personal protective equipment), flying around vaccines, just all the stuff that you can’t afford to put on a ship and wait 45 days to get,” Miller says.
The investment firm is open to potential investors who want to continue using the SuperTanker for wildfire response. But if freight companies present better offers, the firm will sell to them.
Some fire experts, like Andy Stahl, executive director at Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, are unconvinced about using tankers and retardants for wildfires. They cite the dangers of aerial firefighting and the overall expense of retardants.
Stahl calls fire retardant a Western state phenomena because there are more federal lands there, and the U.S. Forest Service has the money to spend on retardants. Stahl claims the use of the chemicals is “more expensive than dropping Perrier out of airplanes.”
In 2020, the federal government and state agencies dropped over 56 million gallons of retardant. “The retardant contracts are very profitable for a small group of very influential firefighting companies and for the bureaucracy that uses them,” Stahl says.
But Michael DeGrosky, chief of the Protection Bureau at Montana’s Department Of Natural Resources and Conservation, believes there’s a time and place for effective retardant use.
“Like all tools, you need to use the right tool in the right situation,” DeGrosky says. “It can be used very effectively when you’re trying to guide a fire and draw it away from homes and property.”
So far, the SuperTanker has seen action mostly in California and Oregon. But it also helped out in Israel in 2016 and in Chile in 2017.
As the company weighs its options, two Washington state legislators sent a letter to U.S. Congress members in Western states. The letter urges federal lawmakers to find a solution to continue the SuperTanker’s operations, the “biggest and one of the best weapons in battling the catastrophic fires.”
Should the Global SuperTanker be converted into a medical supply plane? Or should it remain a firefighting machine?
(A Boeing 747-400 Global SuperTanker drops half a load of its 19,400-gallon capacity during a ceremony at Colorado Springs, Colorado, in May 2016. Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)