Modified 747 Could Be the Next Big Tool to Fight Wildfires

This past few summers have seen some of the worst wildfires on record. The recent Detwiler Fire in Mariposa County consumed over 45,000 acres alone. Local residents were evacuated as their homes were threatened by encroaching flames. Recent heat waves and dry conditions make future fires more likely, and firefighters continue to look for ways to stop forest fires before they destroy homes, animal habitats, and people.

Firefighters recently have been introduced to a new tool, the Global SuperTanker. This specially converted Boeing 747-400 jet is able to drop 19,000 gallons of either water or flame retardant on a fire. Traditional planes only drop between 3,000-5,000 gallons.

There's been an issue until now getting it into the air, however. Even though the SuperTanker had been cleared by the FAA, it was still grounded by the government. So what could be grounding this clearly useful plane that has been used successfully in other countries? It turns out that the U.S. Forest Service was only providing contracts to the old style planes that dropped 3,000-5,000 gallons.

It's not clear exactly why the Forest Department will not grant a contract. However, some say it is possible that they are trying to control their budget. After all, the SuperTanker can cost nearly 250,000 dollars a day to operate. Others say it may be dangerous to drop 19,000 gallons from the sky. SuperTanker founder Jim Wheeler says that the system atomizes the water as it's dropped preventing the breaking or crushing of objects below. In fact, people who are under the water may get wet, but they will not be hurt.

Currently, the SuperTanker is approved for use for the next 17 months. It can only be used in California and one county in Colorado. Until the U.S. Forest Service comes around to adopting the plane, it will be limited to those places. According to Wheeler, "You're not going to put out a 4,000 acre or larger fire with buckets and helicopters. It just physically impossible."



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