With fire season upon us, fleets of different firefighting aircraft are positioned at specific airports and airbases to provide a rapid response to wildfires and fires that threaten wildlands, residential and commercial property.
The 10 Tanker Air Carrier, a reconfigured DC-10 passenger aircraft manufactured by McDonnel Douglas to combat wildfires, is stationed at U.S. Forest Service Tanker Base at San Bernardino International Airport.
These planes have been in firefighting service since 2006.
The orange and white planes are ubiquitous with aerial firefighting.
You may have seen the large DC-10 fly low and slow over Highland, San Bernardino and Redlands, as it approached the runway at the San Bernardino International Airport.
Leslie Casavan, a battalion chief, is the manager for the Air Tanker Base at the San Bernardino International Airport.
She relies on a dedicated crew to coordinate duties to maintain, refuel and refill the air tankers with fire retardant in an expedient manner to get them back into the air to combat wildfires.
“We can get the planes off the ground in about 20 minutes,” said Casavan.
“That means, after the planes have stopped, we can have them refueled and loaded with Foscheck and then start them back up and moving in a relatively short amount of time.”
Casavan, who has worked at the air tanker base for almost two decades, has developed strong working relationships with the pilots, crews and staff that are associated with the aircraft she manages.
“I love my job,” said Casavan. “I love meeting the different air crews. We get to load the planes up and take care of them and send them back out to help the fire crews on the ground.”
Each plane has a crew of seven people, according to Casavan.
“There are three people on the plane. There is a pilot, a co-pilot and a flight engineer,” said Casavan.
“On the ground there are about four people on the maintenance crew that make sure the planes are fueled, loaded and ready to go.”
The 10 Tanker aircraft carry an enormous orange elongated tank affixed to the bottom of the plane.
It is clearly visible when flying overhead.
The tank can carry up to 9,600 gallons of fire retardant or Foscheck (Phos Chek).
This payload can be released in less than 10 seconds.
The planes maneuver to provide an aerial drop of the reddish fire retardant that can extend a mile long and 300 feet wide.
The powdery red line is used to prevent a fire from expanding or threatening residential structures.
Lisa Cox, the fire information officer for the San Bernardino National Forest, understands the significance of the firefighting aircraft and the resource they provide to the community.
“These firefighting aircraft definitely support that wildland urban interface zone,” said Cox.
“If there are any structures at the edge of the forest that are threatened by a wildfire, these resources will be deployed to assist to extinguish the blaze and to protect the structures and the community.”
As a result of the current pandemic, firefighting has adapted to ensure that airbases are well-equipped to respond to wildfires in the region.
“Due to COVID-19, they have added more aircraft to our arsenal,” said Casavan. “That is why we have four planes at the base. We have planes 910, 911, 912 and 914.”
The air tanker base in San Bernardino would typically have two planes.
“They’ve have essentially created a home base for air tankers,” said Casavan.
“In order to deal with COVID-19, we’re trying to reduce exposure to our staff in the field,” said Cox.
“Our goal is to try and put as many resources toward aerial firefighting support as we can. We’re still fully staffed, and our ground crews are still working.
“The objective is to reduce the travel and exposure.”
“In order to support that effort,” said Casavan, “they have to add more helicopters and air tankers.”
“We’re trying to reduce exposure to everybody,” said Casavan. “That’s why we have the home-base tanker idea.
“It reduces the pilots that are here from being exposed to the virus by staying at different hotels and tanker bases in other areas. They’re basically working with just us and they stay locally.”
10 Tanker Air Carrier is headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
According to Casavan, the fleet will go back to Albuquerque for maintenance.
The 10 Tanker Air Carrier planes were recently used in Arizona.
Locally, the 10 Tanker planes were deployed to the Mineral Fire, the Rowher Fire and the Soledad Fire during the month of July.
Providing a global response, these aerial firefighting wonders gave assistance during the devastating fires in Australia in 2019.