With wildfires raging on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Interior, Alaska’s firefighting crews are stretched thin. More are being brought from out of state, but the firefighting is tough right now in Alaska as days grow shorter. Fires have jumped the Sterling Highway and the Parks Highway, hurting commerce and tourism, as well as forcing many Alaskans out of their homes during evacuations.
For fire suppression from the air, the interagency fire fighters have the use of Convair tankers, which hold about 2,100 gallons of water or fire retardant. They are being deployed out of Palmer in support of crews on the ground.
But more robust assets are available. Super tankers, which typically are converted 747 jets, are approved to hold nearly 19,000 gallons, and can operate out of Ted Stevens International Airport, Fairbanks International Airport, or even Eielson Air Force Base or Elmendorf, with certain conditions.
These super tankers have been used in Oregon, California, and Arizona successfully. There are barricades to their use in states unless they are “carded” by the state for such use. Alaska currently hasn’t carded any super tanker companies and has no call-when-needed contracts.
Must Read Alaska checked out the B747-400 Super Tanker from Global SuperTankers. This tanker could reach Alaska in about four and a half hours hours from its land base in California (the company is based in Colorado Springs). Another company, 10-Tanker, operates from Albuquerque, NM. Between them, they are the only VLAT (Very Large Air Tankers) contractors in North America.
In situations such as Alaska is experiencing along the Parks Highway, a super tanker could drench a mile-long, 50-foot-wide swath of retardant in one pass, just what some neighborhoods and hamlets are in need of right now.
Alaska managed to get one in use on the Railbelt Fire of 2009, when Evergreen, defunct since 2014, was looking for a way to test out a super tanker for free.
In the current situation, it appears that without a contract with the State of Alaska, super tankers just are not available for this series of fires — unless the governor called for them under emergency orders, which he has the power to do.
If Dunleavy calls for a super tanker, there’s one waiting just four and a half hours away.
Addendum: The US Forest Service does have access to four of the DC-10 super tankers.