Friday, September 22, 2023
HomeThe 907McKinley Fire: Is it time to bring in the super tankers?

McKinley Fire: Is it time to bring in the super tankers?

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.

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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.

[McKinley Fire consumes 50 structures]

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.

Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.


  1. With the Swan Lake fire starting back up again and the McKinley fire growing to more than 2000 acres and consuming homes and shutting down the highway and railroad between Fairbanks and the Mat-Su Valley I would think that it’s time to bring this incredible tool to Alaska. The governor has the authority to bring this aircraft to Alaska. There appears to be a lot of red tape to get this aircraft on a fire in Alaska depending on whether it is a ‘state’ fire or a ‘federal’ fire, however Governor Dunleavy has the full legal authority to call the Governor of California (who uses the SuperTanker) and bring this aircraft to Alaska on a Governor to Governor contract, therefore, bypassing all of the normal red tape generated by the USFS and other governmental agencies.

    It seems as thought common sense would call for this aircraft to be brought up to help fight these fires since the papers are all saying that Alaska’s Fire Resources are completely maxed out. I would also think that this aircraft would help save lives and property and mitigate the dangers for the ground based fire-fighting personnel.

    So, Governor Dunleavey, isn’t it about time to bring this aircraft to Alaska?

    • This just comes down to whether/not Alaskans value fire fighting over PFDs. This may take a few more structures to bite the dust before it can be determined to spend some of these PFD dollars on government services.
      How many of these homeowners are planning on voting for the Recall?? That’s the important issue here. Heheh!

        • Point blank… We need a new. Governor. This man could care less about the state or it’s people. He already undercover sold out the salmon to mining.. He is an authoritarian with no consciousness to budget cut damage. He could care less of a fire as long as he isn’t on fire.

      • Government free food for chiwaaaawaaas. They eat, then burp and belch. Then start to yip again for more food. As long as its free. Yip. Yip.

      • I see that you subscribe to a variant of Rahm Emanuel’s “never let a crisis go to waste” axiom. Thus, apparently, it becomes: “never miss an opportunity to politicize a situation.” From my perspective, it is a much more significant demonstration of the incompetence of government.

        • Government is incompetent because they can’t completely stop fires in thousands of acres of standing dead black spruce. Want much?

          • There have multiple clear opportunities to extinguish the fire, particularly over the last two weeks. Instead, the authorities decided to pull almost all resources off the fire and let it slowly burn. I would agree that fire in black spruce is a bad thing, but pretending that there was little danger and doing very little when there were many days when the fire could be put out is not responsible.

          • Yeah, multiple clear opportunities to not use the resources elsewhere to be criticized for mismanagement later there.


            Monday morning quarterback always make the perfect read.

  2. Maybe a reasonable question to ask is: Have interagency fire officials made a recommendation to request one in this case?

    I have no idea whether the asset is really useful given the state of what they’re fighting on the ground. I’d expect that it’s useful, but I’m not part of a firefighting crew. For instance, what do the crews on the ground have to do to make use of one (just get the heck out of the way, or is there more to it?)?

  3. Bill Yankee: I’ m sure that those folks who have lost everything appreciate your making this a political issue. No better than than politicians using mass killings to further their agenda.

    • Richard, you think this is something other than a political issue? Next you’ll be telling us that Alaskans losing their jobs over this Governor’s budget cuts should just suck it up and leave the State and not consider it a political issue.
      You are quite the tool.

    • Imagine a world where across the board budget cuts actually affect reality. Now pretend you don’t support them.

  4. I think this comes down to a “jurisdiction” type call since the hot shot crews in charge of the fire are all U.S. Forest Service and once the fire reaches a certain level only certain crews are permitted to work on it.
    I am all for the super tanker (could have used it all summer up here in Alaska as we have dealt with hazardous smoke that hurts our lungs and the tourism industry) but I have worked on enough responses with the NPS to understand that once “the feds are picking up the tab” then all logistics and decisions yields to their authority.
    There has been quite a long history of controversy with getting the forest service to pay for the private tanker.
    “…it’s virtually worthless unless the U.S. Forest Service gives it permission to fight fires — something the agency has yet to do, even though the plane was certified by the FAA last September, and has since fought fires in Chile and Israel…
    Some firefighter advocacy groups suggest the Forest Service might be trying to control its budget, causing delays for the plane, which could cost as much as $250,000 a day to operate.”
    It is doubtful the state administration is willing to pay the additional quarter million a day to assist in extinguishing these large wildfires.

    • It’s odd to watch the budget hawks turn into “money-is-no-object” proponents from one article to the next. For a quarter of a million dollars a day we could replace a lot of defensible space-less shacks.

      • So how much do you think it takes to fly in 200 hotshots from the outside and pay them hazardous pay grades for a month or more to put this fire to bed?
        Just asking because you seem to think fighting 3,000 acre fires is inexpensive.
        Not too mention the costs already incurred with the aircraft and equipment already on the job.
        You either pay a lot up front or you pay a lot over an extended period…there is no cheap solution here.

        • I have no misconceptions about what it costs to do things with all of the hoops that everyone is required to jump through these days.


          The cheap solution is to let it burn. And build and clear accordingly.

          • There have been 18 total fatalities caused by wildfires in Alaska. All of which were attributable to firefighting efforts. If you want to save lives and money you let them burn.


            If you want to save your house make it defensible. If you want to overcome nature with government then you believe in bigger government than me.

  5. We should sue the federal district court, and every greenie organization in Alaska for letting the spruce beetle kill encompass so much of Alaska’s timber. These fires will probably not be stopped until the onset of winter.
    We grow so inured to using air assets that are so incredibly expensive.
    Where is the heavy equipment being used to cut fire lines in advance of the fire?
    Surely, we are not relying on just air support to stop this wind driven fire?
    Evidently, we’ve forgotten how to fight fires with heavy equipment and manpower.
    I’m sure there are people out there who could use a job.
    The governor can request the support of the Army Reserve Combat Engineer Company based at JBER. That unit has dozers, loaders and trucks.
    Same with calling up the ARNG, ANG and other units that are not under Title 10, including the ASDF.
    I know that NANA had one of Lynden Air Cargo’s C130s equipped as an aerial tanker, they will haul 6,000 gal of water.
    Are the CL15s and Convair 580s from Saskatchewan still being used in-state?
    The HH60s and UH60s of the Army, USAF, ARNG, and ANG can be used to fight fires with bucket slings.

    • Black spruce “timber”. The best part about it is that you don’t have to shout “timber” when you fall it.


      These fires have been going on forever. Southeast timber sales have got squat to do with this issue.

  6. My father used to tell me that when he was growing up in AZ, that the men in entire towns would be impressed by the state under the color of law to fight fires. Maybe, its time we required those who live under the threat to help abate it.
    No one should have been ‘evacuated’, they should have been impressed to save their properties. That was the lesson of the Big Lake Fire in 1996–those who stayed and protected their property saved their property, those who left, their places burned.
    The “professionals” are idiots when it comes to caring about your property.
    We had that fight in the aftermath of the Lazy Mt fire in 1999.
    The governor has the authority under AS 26.05.110 to call the unorganized militia to state active duty. Nothing says he cannot make such a levy to fight these fires if they get much worse.
    He can call the organized militia to state active duty to fight wild fires under AS 26.05.070.

  7. As a resident of Caswell lakes in the middle of the the McKinley fire and still in my home hoping to not get burned out I would think it’s time to call this an emergency but then again I don’t count on the government to do the right thing as my home has been considered unsafe to occupy by FEMA but they turned me down for assistance 4 times so I decided to defend my home from this fire because it’s all I have as I’m 50 years old and disabled my income forces me to live in rural area and off grid this is what happens to good people who worked for 30 years before becoming disabled but let’s keep giving homeless drug addicts and acholics in Anchorage money because they don’t want to get sobber and yes I have severe dyslexia so I speak instead of typing find me one honest politician in this world.

  8. Once again, the fire authorities have botched the job on the Swan Lake Fire. After spending $25 million to contain and suppress the fire, the force had dwindled to just 12 firefighters about 36 hours ago. The authorities were proclaiming a management success and noting how much good had been done for the habitat. Then things changed, which is typical for Alaska. A note to the fire authorities: The film of the closure of the Sterling Highway, the threat to property and the notices to evacuate do not look like “success” any more. Hospitals and doctor’s offices in Anchorage are flooded with people with respiratory problems. This is a human-enabled catastrophe.

    Now, we are moving from a force of 12 to bringing in a Type One incident management team from the lower 48 to try to contain the fire. These folks are the best of the best. The federal government needs to spend some serious alone time and re-evaluate the fire management strategies for the Swan Lake Fire. The current approach is bankrupt.

    • JMARK,
      I concur with your thoughts on this issue…
      Although the “boots on the ground” are doing their very best…it appears the system in place is antiquated at best.
      Just watching Bolivia order up the supertanker makes me wonder how really “advanced” this nation is?
      “Bolivia’s President Evo Morales announced on Wednesday that Bolivia had contracted a Boeing 747 ‘Supertanker’ to help extinguish huge forest fires in the Amazon have that spilled over from Brazil.
      By Wednesday evening, the government confirmed that the tanker is arriving in the country and will be operational on Friday.”
      Looks like it was readily available to help…

      • I agree that the USFS and the State Forestry Service have totally mis-managed the wildfire situation in this state. Rest assured that it would not have cost $25 million to bring the SuperTanker (or any other very larger air tanker) to Alaska if even just for the Swan Lake fire.

        Quite frankly, I see no excuse that the Super Tanker type aircraft weren’t called on this fire season, especially with the latest headlines of the McKinley fire consuming 50 homes, 3 businesses and 80 out buildings. The state has acted very irresponsibly.

        The lack of proper USFS and State Forestry common sense management has placed numerous people in this state at great risk, severely impacted other mini-economies in the State and forced many to make a hospital or doctor’s visit due to poor air quality, cancel travel plans or have travel plans interrupted due to major ground transportation arteries being closed due to fires.

        Maybe Governor Dunleavey will get wind of some of these conversations and make some more replacements in the state government so that things will be better managed in the future.

  9. Bill Yankee You need to travel to Willow (you do know where that is?) and talk to people who have lost their homes. Tell them not to worry, that it’s a political issue. “Vote to recall the Governor and everything will be all right.” I doubt you would make many friends.

    • Richard, this issue about super-tankers would only be for those whose homes have not burned-get it? Those folks who have lost their homes may benefit from some emergency declaration to get them access to cheaper funds for rebuilding.

      This governor is incompetent at governing Alaska and the electorate is on to him IMO. He had a mandate to get the voters $6000 apiece but not one to do the budget mess he has delivered and the Recall issue is what’s driving his thinking now (also IMO). At least he is aware of the consequences and we will see how it shakes out.

  10. In early 2017, Global SuperTanker LLC’s 19,200 gallon 747 was dispatched to fight the devastating wildland fires in Chile. Pyrocool was carried in 265 gallon totes in the lower hold. 70 gallons of Pyrocool was simply pumped from the lower hold into the tanks on the main deck. No mixing base was needed Each drop from the 747 is approximately 1.5 miles long. Pyrocool saved critical infrastructure and the town of Llico, Chile in early 2017 when dropped out of the 747. This is the drop that saved Llico, Chile – the white drops at the end are Pyrocool.

    Retardant does not put out fires, kills fish and costs between $5.00 to $2.50 per mixed gallon based on volume – So much retardant would be needed that you couldn’t send it by air.

    Pyrocool has the highest environmental award given by the USEPA, puts the fires out as it is dropped on them, won’t kill anything and has a cost of about $0.18 per mixed gallon + air freight to get it to Alaska.

    For every 100,000 gallons of retardant used, 350 gallons of Pyrocool would be needed to treat the same amount of water.

    • So Jack it appears that there would be some push-back from those who manufacture retardant. Is that the issue here?

      • Yup!! The company that owned the Phos-Chek brand at the time had the foresight to hire 3 senior retired US Forest Service executives and patent a “gum thickened” retardant. Four months after the patent was approved, the US Forest Service changed the specification to only allow for the use of Phos-Chek’s gum thickened retardant. The new specification gave Phos-Chek a sole source contract at the Federal level. California followed suit and gave the Phos-Chek brand a sole source contract.

        The reason for the sole source contract per the USFS Director of Fire and Aviation Management – is “that the toxicity of the older retardants was significantly higher than those found on the current QPL (gum thickened)”. The other significantly more toxic retardants passed the exact same unaccredited USFS lab tests as Phos-Chek, but they weren’t significantly more toxic until the USFS had to figure out how to award a sole source contract.

          • On March 15, 2005, the Forest Service issued the RFQ for the acquisition of “National Long-Term Retardant – Bulk – FOB. The RFQ specified “gum thickened” retardant. Because Phos-chek was the only “gum thickened” retardant available, it was awarded a sole source contract in April 2005. Fire-Trol, which had 75% of the retardant market was shut out. Fire –Trol said they would offer a gum thickened retardant and the owner of Phos-Chek filed a suit alleging “patent infringement and requests, among other relief, an injunction enjoining Fire-Trol from further infringing the ‘831 patent”. The rest, as they say, is history

  11. I witnessed a large airtanker in willow fly over Nancylake yesterday. Our state has so much wildland it impossible to cover all the fires. Cool down people! They are doing their best. Drive out there and bring them food and supplies! Support them! We need to come together an Alaskans. Don’t act like you lower 48 people and expect something to be done when you can help!

  12. The false, and quite frankly puerile, “if you support standard PFD’s (or other gov’t spending you don’t like) you are against (insert thing you do like and/or everyone is for)” is tiresome.

    There are proper functions of a limited government. Public Safety is one of those, “art councils” and spending on a host of progressive social causes are not (necessarily).

    It’s just asinine that supposedly intelligent adults use those idiot tactics of attempting to make lame and sad trollish “gotcha” comments rather than engaging in precise descussions about a particular issue.

  13. It is somewhat amazing after reading Jack’s post on how the 747 SuperTanker saved cities in Chile and has proven it’s worth in saving lives, property and infrastructure that this tool is sitting idle right now in California. The cost of delivery per gallon of retardant is, most likely, far less using the SuperTanker than it is using numerous runs in the small (Convair’s and BAE-146 aircraft) that the state is currently employing.

    It seems as though with the only ground transportation arteries shut down and day long, plus delays on those arteries when they are temporarily opened with pilot cars, the Alaska Railroad not being able to provide service to areas north of Wasilla, schools being closed and the large number of homes that have already been destroyed along with those currently being threatened that the Forestry Service and the State would do whatever was necessary to get this fire fighting tool to these fires.

    While I would agree that the SuperTanker may not be the only tool needed to fight these fires it may very well serve as the small miracle that many of the property owners and those trying to get through on the highway may need to give them the assurance that they will be able to return to their homes without losing anything or get from point a to point b on the highway.

    I can only ponder at how this situation is affecting everything economically in this state. What about all those trying to get down to Anchorage on the railroad or by highway to catch their flights or a ferry home? The economic impact on transportation alone should justify, at the least, giving the SuperTanker the opportunity to prove that the return on the investment made to get this aircraft to Alaska would be well worth it.

    Reading all of the posts here it seems as though some realize that politics are involved in getting the very large air tankers to Alaska and even in the overall plans of the forestry services (state and federal) in using certain types of retardant so I would only hope that politics aren’t involved in putting these very large air tankers to use.

    I found this regarding the DC-10 air tankers and have read that it is politics keeping the 747 grounded, so it would be nice to know the truth:

    “Tanker 910 was first used in July 2006 when it fought the Sawtooth Complex fire in San Bernardino County, California. While the fire was burning, Tanker 910 initially sat on the ground at Victorville, California as it had not received Cal Fire approval to operate. The mayor of Victorville, Mike Rothschild, became concerned and investigated why it was not flying, finding that the approval process was expected to take up to six months to complete. After a call to California State Senator George Runner, Cal Fire was able to complete the necessary training and paperwork in a matter of days, with the California certification being granted on July 15, 2006. The following day, July 16, the aircraft made two drops on the Sawtooth fire, and Cal Fire personnel were reported to have said that “the two fire drops made a greater impact on containing the fire than the 12 helicopters drops for the past 10 days.”

    I agree with Matthew that the PFD and other items not related to this particular issue have no place on this forum and can certainly appreciate Matthew’s last sentence of his August 21st post.

    The fact remains that there is an incredible fire fighting tool that the State and/or the U.S. Forestry Service has not utilized. I find it very difficult to believe that bringing up 200 additional ground fire fighting personnel and an additional helicopter could be less expensive or more effective than getting the SuperTanker up here. Risking the lives of 200 additional people and the continued closure of transportation arteries and schools does not seem to justify not calling on the SuperTanker.

    It would really be nice if we could find out the truth as to why this tool or the other very large tankers (DC-10’s) aren’t being utilized by the state.

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