Cal Fire Belt Tightening Grounds DC-10 Air Tanker

July 7, 2011

The DC-10 “Very Large Air Tanker” makes a drop over Big Sur’s Mescal Ridge, July 5 2008

Like all state agencies, Cal Fire is feeling the pinch of California’s new era of austerity. Engine crews are being reduced from four people to three this year, and the plan is to eliminate  two engines and five fire fighting dozers next year. Rather than cut front line firefighting resources still more deeply, Cal Fire has opted, probably wisely, to cancel its $7 million per year contract with the operator of the famous, and famously photogenic, DC-10 air tanker.

There has long been grumbling from the firefighting community that the main role of the extremely expensive DC-10, and other “Very Large Air Tankers,” has been to mollify local residents and politicians demanding dramatic visual evidence that “something is being done” to fight threatening fires. While their defenders are quick to point out that on certain large fires the oversized planes may really be the best and most cost-effective tool for the job, it does seem that they have appeared in the air over fires for political reasons at least as often as for tactical ones.

But the cancellation of the contract doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve seen the last of the VLATs. If fires or political pressures get hot enough, the state or feds will still be able to rustle up the services of any VLAT that happens to be available, on an as needed basis – they just won’t have the DC-10 waiting and ready to go on 30 minutes notice.

We’re no experts, but we’re guessing that $7 million worth of on-the-ground firefighters will do more to stop fires than an air tanker or two, however large.

For more information, see this Press-Enterprise article.