Smaller air tankers gain in fire fight

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal A single-engine air tanker, an Air Tractor 802, drops fire retardant on the Andrew fire, which began Wednesday.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal A single-engine air tanker, an Air Tractor 802, drops fire retardant on the Andrew fire, which began Wednesday.

The public doesn't hear about most of the fires put out by the three yellow, single-engine aircraft that sit waiting on the grounds of Minden Airport.

In minutes, the quick aircraft can be loaded and in the air to put out flames before they explode into a destructive wildfire. Dropping up to 800 gallons of sticky, red retardant, pilots can target an area and get back to reload cheaply and accurately.

"This is the new face of firefighting," said pilot Marc Mullis.

Fire agencies across the West are changing the way they fight fires from the sky this season, relying more on single-engine air tankers - known as SEATs - after heavy tankers were grounded earlier this year.

This year, Stead and Minden airports have three SEATs each on standby. They have already been effective in squelching several smaller flames from lightning strikes and assisted in eventually controlling the Waterfall fire.

The planes were also used to battle the Andrew fire earlier this week.

Other western fire agencies are also starting to take the smaller planes more seriously.

Last year during the catastrophic Southern California wildfires, federal officials did not call in the small aircraft from surrounding states. Many believed SEATs were not effective in heavy winds or in the thick brush and timber. Pilots outside the state were frustrated as they stayed on standby watching the fire spread, Mullis said.

California used helicopters that could withstand the winds instead, said Ralph Domanski, emergency operations coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service in Southern California.

"Most of our aircraft were grounded when fires were really moving," Domanski said. "Even the military assets we had available, we couldn't use them either."

This year the number of privately owned SEATs has more than doubled to 83 and California is trying them out. Minden pilots have also crossed the border to assist fight fires.

The Bureau of Land Management trains pilots, who are mostly former agriculture pilots in the Midwest.

"The importance is gaining," said Mark Bickham, BLM national program manager. "There are more and more people jumping on the bandwagon. They're smaller and they can get in there. They can actually put a line around the home without damaging the home."

The planes are basically converted crop dusters, now equipped especially to fight fires. With 1,350-horsepower engines, they can reach airspeeds of 210 mph when empty and 190 mph when full of retardant and can land on freeways or roadways if needed.

Pilot can fly as low as 50 feet above a tree top, giving them the ability to drop retardants on specific targets. They also use Global Positioning Systems to find fires.


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