Secretary of Agriculture says we can’t suppress fires and manage forests on the cheap

“We have to have more boots on the ground”

Governor Gavin Newsom and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
USFS Chief Randy Moore, Governor Gavin Newsom, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, August 6, 2021. Still image from ABC10 video.

On August 4 Governor Gavin Newsom, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and new U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore met at the burn scar of the 2020 August Complex of fires in Northern California to discuss state and federal collaboration on ​wildfire response and fuels management across the West.

During a press availability, Secretary Vilsack uttered words we don’t hear from Chiefs of the Forest Service, or certainly from Secretaries of Agriculture:

We are prepared to do a better job [of forest management] if we have the resources to be able to do this… Candidly, I think it’s fair to say over the generations and decades, we have tried to do this job on the cheap. We have tried to get by, a little here, a little there, with a little forest management here, a little fire suppression over here, but the reality is this has caught up to us.

We have to significantly beef up our capacity. We have to have more boots on the ground… And we have to make sure our firefighters are better compensated. Governor, that will happen.

We need to do a better job, and more, forest management to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.

Governor Newsom said he has been exploring way to obtain more fire aviation resources, lamented that there are “only a few contracted DC-10s nationwide”, and said he was looking at how “to get the 747 back in our hands, and that’s been a challenge, that thing has been sold, so we’re still working to get some more aerial equipment.” (This statement is queued up in the video below.)

Secretary Vilsack said the Governor’s request for additional aviation resources, “… Came to my desk. One of the challenges we’re working on right now is making sure we get the Defense Department personnel necessary to fly the planes. So sometimes it’s not even the planes, it’s the pilots, the people who know how to fly these planes…I was given instructions to… make sure we have the people in the planes to fly them.”

The Secretary was most likely referring to the military Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems, MAFFS, which can be loaded into C-130 aircraft to temporarily serve as air tankers. They are the only military air tankers used on wildfires in the U.S.  Each requires a seven-person crew, additional support personnel, and often a third conventional C-130 for every two MAFFS that are activated.

The Secretary’s comment could be the explanation for why only five of the eight MAFFS have been activated this year. On July 27, wondering if there was a specific reason why the remaining three were still parked, I asked US Forest Service spokesperson Stanton Florea if the three were available if needed. He replied on July 28, “There are 3 additional MAFFS-equipped C-130s that can be brought into service, if needed.”

As of today, August 6, there are still only five MAFFS working.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and Secretary Tom Vilsack
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Secretary Tom Vilsack tour site of the 2020 August Complex of fires, August 4, 2021. California state government photo.

The 747 Supertanker shuts down

The company told government officials it is going to cease operations

Updated at 3:08 p.m. MDT April 23, 2021

747 Supertanker takeoff from MCC
747 Supertanker taking off from MCC, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

This article was first published at Fire Aviation

The investor group that owns the 747 Supertanker, Tanker 944, is shutting down the huge air tanker. In an email sent April 21 to officials in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the federal government, Dan Reese the President of Global Supertanker gave them the news:

This week the investors that own the Global SuperTanker just informed me that they have made the difficult decision to cease operations of the company, effective this week…This is extremely disappointing as the aircraft has been configured and tuned with a new digital drop system and other upgrades to make it more safe and efficient.

Mr. Reese said in the email they are in discussions with prospective buyers, but it was unknown at that time if the aircraft would continue to be configured as an air tanker capable of carrying more than 17,500 gallons or if it would be used as a freighter.

Most of the company’s employees have been furloughed until the fate of the SuperTanker is known.

747 sunset March 22, 2016
747 Supertanker at MCC during sunset March 22, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In an April 2020 letter posted on the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s website the Chair of the National Interagency Aviation Committee, Joel Kerley of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, wrote to Global Supertanker Services  saying the Committee would not issue a seventh interim approval of the aircraft’s retardant delivery system:

The Interagency Air Tanker Subcommittee does not support any further interim approvals without correcting some issues originally identified in the 2009 test of the system that included failure to meet coverage level 3 & 6, retention of retardant in the system after drop, aeration of the retardant causing trail off, and inconsistent flight profiles affecting retardant coverage.

Due to the current national situation regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19), NIAC will issue an eighth interim approval to GSTS. However, NIAC will not support, nor issue a ninth interim until GSTS successfully passes all requirements of the 2013 IABS Criteria. This must be completed prior to December 31, 2020.

747 Palmer Fire supertanker
Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

Last winter Tanker 944 spent several weeks in Moses Lake, Washington getting routine maintenance and a conversion of the retardant delivery system from an analog controller to a digital version, a change that was requested by the National Interagency Aviation Committee.

Most large air tankers carry up to 3,000 gallons of retardant. The 747 is capable of carrying far more retardant than any other. When first introduced it was listed at 20,000 gallons. Then the federal government certified it at 19,200 gallons. More recently it was required to carry no more than 17,500 gallons. The second-largest capacity air tanker is the Russian-made Ilyushin IL-76 at 11,574 gallons. The DC-10 until a couple of years ago was allowed to hold 11,600 but federal officials now restrict it to 9,400.

The U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. agency that contracts for all of the large and very large air tankers used by the federal government, has been slow to warm up to the concept of tankers that can carry more than 5,000 gallons. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, accepted the concept of the 747 and DC-10 more quickly.

We asked the Forest Service for a comment on the demise of the 747. “The USDA Forest Service is aware of this vendors decision,”  said Stanton Florea, Fire Communications Specialist for the agency.”The Global Super Tanker is on a Call-When-Needed (CWN) contract for aerial wildland fire suppression.”

In the interest of full disclosure, Global Supertanker Services has an ad in the sidebar of Fire Aviation.

Opinion of a Lead Plane Pilot

I asked a Lead Plane Pilot who has worked with Tanker 944 for his impressions of the aircraft. He is currently active and not authorized to comment publicly:

It’s a specialized tool, and as such it has a niche that it fills and in that niche there’s nothing else any better. That is, it puts out a huge amount of retardant in one pass, and that sometimes can be a great thing. It can travel halfway around the world and deliver product. Having said that it is also a specialized tool in that it isn’t very good at doing the little stuff.

I asked him about the retardant that sometimes trails off after a drop:

That trail off, that’s something they can beat them over the head with, but at the end of the day hardly anybody I know gives a s**t about it. Ok, well, it’s not a perfect tank.

Below is video of Tanker 944 dropping on the Holy Jim Fire on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California in 2018.

First drop on a fire

The initial version of the Supertanker installed by Evergreen in a 747-100 made its first ever drop on a fire 12 years ago at the Railbelt complex in Alaska in 2009. When Evergreen went bankrupt Global Supertanker bought the hardware and the rights to the retardant system and installed it in a newer more powerful 747-400.

Assisted firefighters in Israel, Mexico, Chile, and Bolivia

In 2016 the 747 assisted firefighters in Israel, and in 2017 it spent several weeks working on fires in Chile. In one day, February 1, 2017 working out of Santiago, it conducted a total of 11 drops on 7 sorties. Six of the sorties were near Navidad and Matanzas 115 miles (185 km) southwest of the Santiago airport where many structures were threatened. The seventh was near Concepcion, 404 miles (650 km) south of Santiago. In total, 138,400 gallons (508,759 l.) were delivered to assist the firefighters on the ground.

The air tanker also had an assignment in Mexico in 2011, and in 2019 spent about seven weeks on a firefighting contract in Bolivia.

Military C-130 aircraft and the 747 activated for Southern California Fires

File photo of MAFFS 1, based at Cheyenne, but is seen landing at Fresno, August 5, 2017. Photo by L.S. Braun.

This article first appeared on Fire Aviation.

(Originally published at 11:53 a.m. PST December 5, 2017)

Two California National Guard C-130’s have been activated by the state’s Governor to assist with the wildfires in Southern California. Two large fires have burned a total of  49,000 acres since Monday afternoon — the Creek Fire at Ventura and the Thomas Fire near Sylmar.

A spokesperson for the 146th Airlift Wing said the aircraft have been activated, they are being prepared, and the Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) are being installed, but they have not yet received the launch orders.

The MAFFS, which can be installed in a C-130 in a few hours, holds up to 3,000 gallons of retardant.

With the very strong Santa Ana winds currently blowing in Southern California, it remains to be seen if it will possible, safe, or effective to use fixed wing aircraft over the fires. Air tankers have to fly low and slow, and usually over rough terrain. Strong winds can make this unsafe and the retardant can also be blown far off the target.

Very few air tankers on U.S. Forest Service contracts are still active this time of the year. Last Friday there were only four, all in southern California; two CL-415 scoopers and two MD-87’s.

The 747 SuperTanker has also been activated on a CAL FIRE Call When Needed contract and will fly from Marana, Arizona to McClellan near Sacramento today, arriving at about 3 or 4 p.m.

The scoopers are due to end their mandatory availability period on December 6, but it is possible they could be extended due to the current fire situation in southern California. In September the USFS cancelled the last four years of the 5-year contract for the scoopers. The cancellation was to take effect on December 6, 2017.

Beaver Fire, MD-87, T-103, South Dakota,
An MD-87, probably Tanker 103, drops on the Beaver Fire west of Wind Cave National Park September 13, 2017. Photo by Herb Ryan used with permission.

Colorado county approves first-of-its-kind deal with Global SuperTanker Services

Above: 747 Supertanker making a test drop with water at Colorado Springs May 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A Colorado county on Tuesday approved a deal that sets the stage for a response from the largest firefighting aircraft in the world if and when major wildfires flare up near Denver, marking the culmination of a first-of-its-kind contract.

Commissioners in Douglas County on Tuesday approved the one-year, $200,000 deal with Global SuperTanker Services LLC that gives the county access to the mammoth Boeing 747-400 aircraft that can drop roughly 20,000 gallons of water or retardant — nearly double the capacity of its closest rival, the DC-10.

The deal is unique in that it gives the 800-square-mile county situated between Denver and Colorado Springs exclusive access to the SuperTanker.

“Douglas County is establishing a model for wildland fire-prone municipalities to follow,” Bob Soleberg, senior vice president and program manager for Global SuperTanker, said in a statement Tuesday night to Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation. “Their planning is comprehensive and designed to protect lives, property and the natural resources.”

Additional details about the new deal and information about Douglas County’s partnerships with other aircraft entities in the region is available on

Volunteers firefighters in Chile set up water supply system for Supertanker

Firefighters in Chile, mostly volunteer, are battling fires that have burned over half a million acres

As the number of people killed and the acres burned in Chile continue to grow, more attention is being focused on the 5,000 firefighters battling the flames.

747 Supertanker
The 747 Supertanker reflected in a portable water tank at the Santiago Airport.
Almost all of the firefighters in the cities, towns, and rural areas are volunteers. On Thursday I talked with some of them at the Santiago Airport that were supplying water for the SuperTanker. They explained that in their department the only paid person was the Conductor, a position that in the United States we would call an engineer, chauffeur, or driver. The Conductor we talked with said he lives in the fire station with his wife and children.

Firefighters Santiago Airport
Firefighters at the Santiago Airport, January 26, 2017.
The several dozen firefighters at the airport water supply operation, who represented multiple departments, were very professional, and had what appeared to be well-maintained equipment.

Between refills on the 747 the firefighters lined up wearing their full bunker gear and stood at attention. They had just learned about the death of a fellow firefighter and wanted to honor his or her’s service. 

1,000 structures destroyed in Chile wildfires

There have been at least seven deaths

Above: NASA satellite photo showing smoke from the wildfires in Chile January 26, 2017. The red dots represent heat detected by the sensors.

The siege of wildfires in Chile continues to worsen, with more than 1,000 structures destroyed in the last two days. There are reports that virtually the entire town of Santa Olga was consumed, including approximately 1,000 homes well as schools, businesses, and the post office.

The largest fires are in central Chile within 300 miles south of the capital Santiago. At times smoke has reduced visibility in the city to about a mile. On Thursday I watched an air tanker take off at the airport and within 15-20 seconds after leaving the runway it disappeared in the smoke.

The wildfire situation in Chile is the worst in recent memory, occurring during severe drought and higher than average temperatures.

Four wildland firefighters and and one air tanker pilot have been killed battling the fires since December 28. An additional three to six civilians have also died in the fires, with the number varying in different reports.

The 5,000 firefighters assigned are up against a seemingly impossible task as the burned areas 588,108 acres (238,000 ha) have grown substantially in the last few days, damaging towns, ranches, and vineyards.

747 Supertanker Santiago Chile
The 747 Supertanker at Santiago, Chile, January 25, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The world’s largest air tanker, the 747 SuperTanker, has been assisting the firefighters in Chile since it arrived January 25, dropping 19,200 gallons on each mission. At least one and possibly two Russian IL-76 air tankers will also join the fight, with a capacity of 13,000 gallons. Authorities are hoping that other firefighting aircraft from around the world can be found to add to the temporary fleet, including water-scooping tankers.

The weather forecast for Chile indicates the wildfire situation is not going to improve anytime soon, and predicts more hot, dry, and windy conditions.