A fleet of 34 helicopters and 13 heavy firefighting air tankers — from large DC-10 jets to an amphibious turboprop — is flying morning until dark, dropping retardant and water to try to save homes and hold back the state’s wildfires.

Share story

Pilots are flying from morning until dark out of Moses Lake, using an eclectic fleet of eight heavy firefighting air tankers to drop either gooey, orange retardant or water to hold back the state’s aggressive wildfires.

In the heat of the current battle against large fires spreading explosively toward isolated ranches and small northern towns, John Gould, operations-safety manager for contractor 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said his DC-10s are sometimes being scrambled as last-ditch defenses.

“Houses are burning. People’s land is burning,” Gould said. “They are trying to apply the retardant tactically to save homes and stop small parts of the fire.”

“In my experience as a firefighter, these fires rank among the worst I’ve seen,” Gould added. “They’re hot. They’re hard to stop. It’s extreme fire behavior day after day.”

Wildfire coverage

Wildfire growth
Twisp fire

More typically, the air tankers are deployed to hem in a fire, spraying along strategic defense lines as firefighters on the ground fan out to try to flank a fire on two sides and pinch it off.

“Air tankers do not put out fires. The boots on the ground do that,” said Mike Ferris, a Forest Service spokesman at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). “The air tankers buy some time. They can slow down or take the energy out of a fire.”

In addition to the eight tankers out of Moses Lake, another one flying out of Spokane and four more from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, are deployed in Washington state. The 13 tankers represent 40 percent of the U.S. aerial-tanker firefighting fleet.

In addition, 34 helicopters — including National Guard Blackhawks and Chinooks — were deployed Friday across Washington state, flying almost nonstop from temporary pads in fields much closer to the fires.

Gooey retardant

The tankers are contracted from private companies at a rate of about $27,000 per day, plus $10,000 per hour of flying.

The aerial tankers at Moses Lake fill up there with fire retardant and fly into their assigned fire zones. About a quarter of a mile ahead in a small lead plane, an experienced fire manager is in radio contact with firefighters on the ground and with a tanker crew.

The lead plane — typically a Beechcraft King Air turboprop or a Cessna Citation business jet — shows the tanker where it wants to begin dropping retardant and where to stop, often by injecting a little oil into the engine to emit a smoke trail as it moves along the desired line.

With an optimal drop height of just 250 feet above the ground and mountainous terrain nearby, Gould said, it’s risky flying, though “everybody in the industry works very hard to mitigate that risk.”

The lead plane makes a run through in advance and will bring in the tanker only if visibility is good and the pilot sees a good entry point and safe exit point.

Each tanker has a single crew. Eight hours is the maximum flying time allowed per day, with a mandatory two days off every two weeks.

The big tankers drop a nontoxic, ammonium phosphate-based retardant that suppresses fire even after it dries out.

Gould said his DC-10s drop more than 11,000 gallons in one run, producing “a really heavy rain of slippery, gooey stuff.”

As the retardant is heated, water vapor is released, leaving a deposit of graphite-like carbon that is not flammable. Later rainfall will wash it off.

While the aircrews strive to avoid dropping the retardant on people on the ground, “probably there’s not a firefighter out there who hasn’t been soaked by it,” Gould said.

Also at Moses Lake on Friday was an amphibious Bombardier CL-415 water-scooper, operated by Aero-Flite, which can skim across the surface of a lake and scoop 1,600 gallons of water into its tank.

Helicopters buzzing

Meanwhile, helicopter crews are buzzing along the edges of wildfires across the state.

Helicopters are more agile than big planes and can land and take off much closer to the action. They are used to move quickly against startup fires, both by dropping buckets of water and by moving around fire managers and ground crews.


Related video: Aerial view of wildfires burning across North Central Washington

Wildfires are raging throughout the state, and a dry, windy forecast calls for worsening conditions across North Central Washington. Read more. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)    

The largest helicopters can dump buckets of up to 2,500 gallons of water on a fire.

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on Friday had seven helicopters fighting fires near Omak and at the Grizzly Bear complex in the Blue Mountains of Southeast Washington.

DNR spokesman Joe Smillie said those included surplus Vietnam-era Huey helicopters, “bought for $1 off military surplus” and sometimes flown by Vietnam veterans.

Also in the DNR’s fire arsenal are Sikorsky S-64 Erickson Skycranes, large dragonfly-like machines that deploy a tube to suck water up from a lake.

Like the planes, the helicopters are expensive to operate. The contract rate for the vintage Hueys is $1,700 per flight hour and for the Sikorsky $7,650 per flight hour.

Gould, of 10 Tanker Air, said the current wildfires are demanding an “incredible amount of resources.”

“This is a very, very bad fire season, most especially in the Pacific Northwest,” said Gould. “Right now that is the epicenter of all the hot fires.”