Even though the B747-400 SuperTanker can carry almost double the amount of water or fire retardant — almost 20,000 gallons — compared to the next largest SuperTanker, don’t expect to see it fighting fires in Western Oregon anytime soon.
While there could be other parts of the state and country where topography would allow the B747-400 to be a useful tool, it wouldn’t necessarily work between the rolling hills of Douglas County, according to Kyle Reed of the Douglas Forest Protective Association.
Reed said even if the aircraft were available, it wouldn’t be able to fly over the 16,436-acre Horse Prairie Fire in Douglas County due to the terrain and the smoke that’s clung to the hills over the past few weeks. During the first part of September, Reed said, the hills a quarter-mile away from fire camp in Riddle were not visible.
“I think the topography in Southwest Oregon would make for some difficult drops where it would be harder for them to use it efficiently. They may be able to drop on the ridge tops still, but wouldn’t be able to drop down inside the canyons,” Reed said. “Think of the North Umpqua River, the South Umpqua River and the Cow Creek Canyon where this one was, and imagine a 747 down there trying to make a drop. That’s not going to happen.”
Reed said although the SuperTanker might be bigger and able to hold more water and fire retardant, it doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for the job.
Currently, 776 personnel are working on the Horse Prairie Fire, using single-engineered tankers and several larger tankers.
The Oregon Department of Forestry Incident Management Teams working on the fire have ordered a Very Large Air Tanker, VLAT, but for weeks the area has been socked in with smoke. Aircrafts ordered and delivered for use on the fire have been grounded due to the smoke, but the past few days have been clearer, allowing aviation services to commence.
Jamie Knight, spokeswoman for the ODF Incident Management Team 1, said the smoke conditions have since eased up enough over the weekend so aircrafts and helicopters could be used for supervising the fire from the air and suppressing it with water drops.
“At this point, if crews have a hard-to-access spot where they need extra water and it would be quite an undertaking to get it there, that’s what those helicopters are for,” Knight said. Several helicopters are still available for use on the Horse Prairie Fire, while some have been sent to work on other fires in the state.
ODF tested out a infrared camera for a few smoke-filled days, which allowed crews to see through the smoke and fly an aircraft higher above the area where it wouldn’t risk running into a hillside. Reed said the camera caught a couple of spot fires before they grew too large, which firefighters wouldn’t have been able to do without the camera.
“The neat thing about firefighting is the theory and how to do it hasn’t really changed much throughout the years, but the tools and technology have improved leaps and bounds,” Reed said. The DFPA primarily uses cameras instead of lookouts to detect fires, and Reed has been seeing a trend toward more satellite detection and thermal imaging.
“The SuperTanker thing has been a crazy debate all over Facebook the last couple weeks, and it’s another tool in the tool box,” Reed said. “Is it the right tool for every place? No, but it is available out there for firefighters, potentially, for where it is needed.”