There have always been wildfires but the last few summers seem to have been particularly bad. This past August in Spokane will be remembered for smoky days and poor air quality. There are many dedicated men and women who work tirelessly to fight wild land fires. As dangerous and challenging as their job is, the help of firefighting aircraft can make their job a little easier. There are two aerial firefighting companies right here in the Spokane Area.
Aero Spray first showed up on seen in Deer Park about nine years ago. Initially it came here on a trial basis, but now has a permanent facility at the Deer Park Airport. Aero Spray has its roots planted firmly in agriculture; spraying crops. Headquartered in Appleton Minnesota, much of the company’s business is still agriculture.
The Deer Park location is primarily for aerial firefighting. This location has 10 aircraft and most of them are the Air Tractor AT-802F Fire Boss. The Fire Boss is essentially a modified crop duster fitted with pontoons and capable of dipping 820 gallons of water from a small lake in about 30 seconds. The Fire Boss will leave the Deer Park Airport with a tank full of fire retardant for its first drop and then it will dip water out of a nearby lake or river.
In addition to the Fire Bosses, Aero Spray has Air Tractors without pontoons that bring fire retardant to fires, they just can’t refill by dipping into nearby lakes. All of their aircraft are referred to as single engine air tankers; SEATs. You don’t hear about SEATs being used to fight the large fires that make the national news. The idea of a SEAT is to get to the fire and put it out quickly so it doesn’t become one of those big fires that make the national news.
Aero Spray is awarded short-term contracts with the Washington state Department of Natural Resources, the Idaho Department of Lands and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Aero-Flite relocated to the Spokane International Airport from Kingman Arizona in late 2014. Shortly before, it had a change in ownership when it was bought by Conair; an aerial firefighting company in Canada. The parent company which is headquartered in Abbotsford BC, wanted to move the Aero-Flite headquarters closed to theirs.
Aero-Flite gets most of their business through contracts with the forest service. When Aero-Flite moved to Spokane less than three years ago they brought with them five firefighting aircraft and that number has already doubled.
Aero-Flite operates 4 Canadair CL-415's. The 415 is an amphibious water scooper that is capable scooping up to 1,600 gallons of water out of a lake or river and dumping it onto a nearby fire. It is also capable of carrying a concentrated fire suppressant which it can mix with the water. The 415 has a cruise speed of 180 knots when filled with water.
The Canadair CL-415 is the successor of the CL-215 that has been proving itself as an effective aerial firefighter since 1965. The 215 is still used in many parts of the world but is no longer used in the United States. The CL-415 is built from the ground up as an aerial firefighter and not a conversion.
The biggest advantage of the 415 is that when there is a water source near to the fire, it has a very short turnaround time. An air tanker is required to be filled with fire retardant at an air tanker base. Depending on the proximity of a usable water source and the distance to the nearest tanker base, this can be a huge advantage.
Aero-Flite operates 6 Avro RJ85's. As the letters RJ represent, the RJ85 was originally manufactured and used as a passenger regional jet. The most easily recognizable change to the RJ85 conversion to an air tanker is the external tank wrapped around the fuselage; that give it that “chubby” look.
The RJ85 is capable of carrying 3,000 gallons of fire retardant and flying at a speed of 415 knots to deliver it to a fire. Because the RJ85 is dependent on an air tanker base to be filled between drops, the high speed and high capacity is critical. The Forest Service has stopped renewing contracts for the older, slower, lower capacity airtankers.
During the fire season, Aero-Flite’s tankers will be out on contract with the forest service and spread out all over the country including Alaska. Because of their high airspeed and longer range capability, they can get where they are needed very quickly.
An amphibious water scooper will dump its water load directly onto the fire to extinguish the fire whereas an airtanker will dump its load of fire retardant in front of the fire to stop the fire in its path.
Written by:Todd Hays