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.
Really interesting question vis-a-vis the political vs. tactical advantages of the DC-10. I’ve even become a little nostalgic seeing that plane again. It was indeed great (and oddly reassuring) theater watching it paint Mescal Ridge three years ago.
By the way, I note the date in the caption: July 5, 2008. The camera date of my own photographs is July 6 — the same date I have for the backfire on Mescal Ridge. Am I remembering correctly that the DC-10 was only in operation along Mescal Ridge for one day?
The photo – taken by Lloyd Jones – was first posted on this site at 10pm on July 5 2008. At that time, we reported that the DC-10 had made a couple of runs, painting Mescal Ridge in anticipation of backfiring operations planned for the next day. We’re guessing the DC-10 was in action there on both the 5th and 6th.
In addition to the political grandstanding you describe, aerially applied fire retardants can do a lot more than just retard wildfire. Reporting on a just released Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement on fire retardants, the June 13, 2011 issue of High Country News states:
“It also lists a dizzying array of impacts: One chemical, Phos-Chek D75, a blend of ammonia salts and thickeners, killed scores of endangered steelhead trout during a May 2009 fire near Santa Barbara, Calif.; in Australia, three consecutive years of its use turned a shrub ecosystem to grassland after 22 years.”
Here are links to the HNC article, the FS EIS and Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a prime litigant in the matter:
HCN article: http://www.hcn.org/issues/43.10/fire-fight-forest-service-finally-reveals-the-hazards-of-chemical-retardants
FS site with documents: http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/retardant/eis_info.html
Thanks so much, XT, for the dating clarification. Also, just tonight, I was at the Henry Miller Library book reading of “Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara.” I think the book just went public yesterday. The section author Colleen Morton Busch read was wonderful. David Zimmerman, director of Tassajara at the time, was present and was part of the dialogue, too. Must-read for we wildfire-in-the-Ventana-philes.
At first I too thought the date was wrong. Being a member of the Mid-Coast Fire Brigade and on duty everyday through out our involvement in the fire, I could only remember seeing the plane drop on July 6. But then I remembered, I was down at the fire camp at Molera for evening briefing and dinner. It was there that I heard the big plane had made a couple of drops over Bixby Mt. I was so disappointed that I had missed seeing the plane. The big clue to this picture being from the 5th is that there are no engines sitting up on top of Bixby Mt. Actually no equipment to be seen on the ridge at all. All the pictures of the plane dropping on the 6th have equipment along the ridge line.