North Carolina sold CL-215 Super Scooper on eBay, a month before the Pains Bay fire

North Carolina's CL-215 before it was sold in March

North Carolina's CL-215 before it was sold in March. State of NC photo.

A month before the Pains Bay fire started in North Carolina, the state’s Division of Forest Resources sold their only large air tanker, a CL-215, on eBay. The aircraft was built by Canadair in 1969 and was purchased by North Carolina in 1998 for $4 million. It had been mothballed since May, 2008 because it had become too expensive to operate, David Lane, head of the forest protection for the division, said in 2007. Lane said it cost up to $1.2 million a year, which was 35 percent of the division’s aircraft budget. The state did not have the funding for an estimated $1.5 million needed for repairs and FAA-required maintenance.

North Carolina listed the aircraft on eBay and accepted the winning bid of $445,099 from Buffalo Airways of Yellowknife, Northwest Territory, Canada on March 30, 2011. Buffalo Airways purchased it sight unseen and planned to fly a team to Hickory, NC to perform necessary maintenance and repairs, then fly it 5,000 miles to its new home.

Since then, some recent news reports about the 20,954-acre Pains Bay fire on the North Carolina coast have included criticism of the sale of the air tanker. Tom Crews is the Fire Management Officer of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge where the fire is burning, and was the Type 3 Incident Commander before Mike Quesinberry’s Type 1 Incident Management Team assumed command on May 8. Crews has been quoted as saying:

If we’d had the CL 215, we’d have been able to stop this fire by now, there’s no doubt in my mind.

and:

It’s a real workhorse. It can drop more than three times as much water as any other plane.

A CL-215, according to the CalFire Firefighting Aircraft Recognition Guide, can hold 1,300 to 1,621 gallons, depending on the model. Other air tankers can drop from 300 to 20,000 gallons.

The state of North Carolina has four single engine air tankers (SEATs). Three of them are Melex M18A Dromader’s, and one is a Rockwell S2R. These SEATs can drop 400 to 500 gallons of water or retardant. The state has a fire Aviation Resources web page, but it was last updated in 2008.

The CL-215 air tanker is not the only wildfire aircraft that the state wants to sell. Here is an excerpt from a May 17, 2010 report from Wildfire Today about a panel’s recommendation that they dispose of another 19 aircraft used for fire management:

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A watchdog group of the North Carolina General Assembly, the Program Evaluation Division, has recommended that the Division of Forest Resources eliminate 20 of the 38 aircraft that they use for the management of wildland and prescribed fires. The report also recommends that of the other 34 aircraft owned by the state, that 5 of them be eliminated.

Here are the recommendations about the fire-related aircraft from the 89-page report, which also covers the management of other state-owned aircraft.

Function Currently Eliminate Remaining
Fire Control (3 single-engine fixed wing, and 3 Bell UH1H helicopters) 6 2 4
Fire Patrol (single-engine fixed wing) 18 11 7
Suppression (air tankers, 1 CL215 & 4 SEATs) 5 1 4
Suppression/Rx burn 2 1 1
Transport 3 1 2
Salvage/parts 4 4 0
TOTALS 38 20 18
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About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

11 thoughts on “North Carolina sold CL-215 Super Scooper on eBay, a month before the Pains Bay fire

  1. Welcome to the new reality, fire folks! Things cost money, income is limited (can you all chant the John Boehner mantra “No new Taxes”??), and something has to give in the budget-balancing decision process. I know that the proud citizens of NC would not want the Federal deficit to increase just to help fund their fire suppression operation!
    States have to balance their budgets every year: any ideas how NC could have kept their CL-215 AND not screw other good State programs AND balanced the State budget? Oh yeah, AND not have the Feds bail them out? If you have the right answer, I’ll vote to anoint you the President (or NC Governor) in January 2013.

    • yeah, why don’t we just put the money toward unemployment funding and give it away to sorry people that don’t wanna work instead of something that may save a home and cut down on the cost of fire suppresion. Obvioulsy you have no clue what it cost to put out a fire this size.

  2. Many areas eastern North Carolina are low lands; some are fragile eco-sensitive area, others are in valuable paper-pine plantations. Many of the sensitive areas are also “peaty” with a great risk of in-ground fires. The “Evans Rd Fire” of 2008 burned ~56,000 acres and was only a few miles to the west of the Pain Bay fire. It was a also a small fire that could have been easily contained early by an aircraft like the CL-215 but it went underground and took months of work with tractor plows, tracked water tankers and other ground equipment to extinguish. The Evans Rd fire began two days after the FAA certificates were allowed to run out on the NC Forest Service’s CL-215.
    Look at the large, easily usable bodies of water in eastern North Carolina. Few forests are more than a few minutes flying time from a “scoop” area. A fire in Pender county NC in 2007 threatened a development of 17 homes/47 structures (many of these structures were separate garages, horse barns and other high-value buildings). The fire was fanned by sea-breeze winds and quickly topped in the pine forest. The CL-215 was able to drop in about a 4-5 minute cycle, dropping 36 loads in less than 2 hours. This, plus accurate drops of retardant by 3 SEATs, allowed the tractor plow crews to establish as control line just across a road in front of the structures. Despite a few small spotovers, the line was held at that road. The spotovers were easily extinguished by the tractors and no damage was sustained by any of the structures. Had the CL-215, along with other aviation resources, not delayed the fire so that the ground crews could establish their effective control lines, we would have lost those structures and had another “multi-thousand acre” fire in the Holly Shelter wilderness woodlands.

  3. Even if the CL-215 was costing $1.2 mill a year out of the total aircraft budget , where did all the money go that the Scooper earned by helping out Minnesota every year and seeing service in other States ? It was Inter-State agreements and bought in between half and one million dollars depending on the amount of flying involved every year . OK , so it went into some darn mythological “General Account” never to be seen again . And when money is needed for upkeep and maintenance on the Scooper it can’t be gotten . Put it on EBay and give it away , the easy way out out !! Never mind the Eastern part of the State having fires , wait until some big fires get going through the Smokies and burn good timber and million $$ homes . Time to call in the Feds and pay some real big money for their tankers ( if available ) to drop retardant .

  4. I saw on ebay the total parts for that aircraft sold for 29,300 Just a wheel and tire for that aircraft costs about $25,000 I guess the company that bought it went laughing all the ways to the bank Ill bet there was a million dollars of parts. So I guess the upper level managment thinks only of their empire, than the publics tax $$$ Someone needs to look into it. Tshat mine and your tax dollars. Hey Emmett lets start with canning the mangagers that make million dollar bad decicsions for a start!!!!

  5. Keeping some of the older planes flying gets expensive. Parts are hard to come by or have to be individualy made. The stress of time and wear and tear adds up.

    The helicopter industry has turned almost all to jet turbines and the same is happening to fixed wing in many applications. Thinking back the last piston engine helicopter I was on in a fire was in 1976, a Bell 47.

    I’m sure the CL-215 served well in it’s time, but perhaps the time of a 40 year old aircraft has has run out.

    I have worked with the NC Division of Forestry aviation unit many times and allways found them well trained and professional.

    • Aircraft are not like cars. As cars get older, the cost of some repairs approaches the value of the vehicle. An aircraft that is kept to FAA airworthiness standards on an annual or time in service basis (inspections at intervals based on operating hours) are not like that. Aircraft are expensive to maintain because of that but just because an aircraft is old does not mean it is not cost effective. One of the ‘old’ aircraft that the NC Forest Service turned in due to the PED and C&D reports were in the neighborhood of 40 years old but they were still cheaper to operate and maintain than the newer Cessnas that were purchased to replace them. Finding parts for the ‘old’ airplanes is sometimes a challenge but it is not impossible. As a matter of fact, there are companies that specialize in some parts and modifications for those ‘old’ airplanes.

  6. One of the drawbacks of public agencies is the tendency of legislative bodies to get involved in the decision making of skilled enterprises (ie engineering, fire). The legislature basically told the NC Forest Service that aviation was going to take a budget cut in the amount that they estimated the 215 was worth. The message was clear and fire managers had no choice in the matter. I am firmly convinced that there is no reasoning with a legislative body… only adaptation and recovery.

    NC fire managers are working on other ways improve aerial suppression resources for the future. This year, aviators from other states (during their typical slow season) have been on hand on hand for NC’s fire season.

    • Rick – you are right on! Here in Montana, our State Legislators tried to suck up to the private aircraft industry and require that most of the DNRC Fire flight time be committed to the private sector. The costs to us taxpayers be damned, the private A/C folks had some of the best legislators that money could buy!!
      A strong letter writing campaign by fire folks here in Montana killed that bill, but we know it is lurking in the dark shadows and will likely surface again if the “pro-private sector” folks are in power.

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