As wildfires rage across California, beleaguered fire officials are calling for reinforcements. After a lengthy delay, a modified 747 airplane is expected to be deployed this weekend to assist with the fight.
The Global SuperTanker, a Boeing 747 airframe modified for firefighting, received approval from Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service on Friday night to begin dropping water, retardant and suppressant on wildfires, according to Global SuperTanker Services CEO Jim Wheeler. The plane, named the Spirit of John Muir, can fly up to 600 miles per hour and deliver up to eight drops totaling 19,200 gallons in a single flight.
"We thank Cal Fire and the USFS for their tremendous professionalism and diligence throughout the (approval) process and look forward working with the team in 2018," Wheeler said in a statement. "The severity and multiple locations of fires this early in the season is another indication that the country needs additional air assets in order to fight fires effectively and efficiently."
Wheeler said the SuperTanker, which helped fight California wildfires in 2017, was delayed this season due to bureaucratic and technical glitches that prevented his plane from being authorized in Colorado and California. The SuperTanker's approval in California is temporary, pending resolution of the software problem, which Wheeler said is not related to safety or performance.
"While we did everything in our power to get the plane ready and available in advance of fire season, unforeseen challenges prevented that from becoming a reality," he said. "We hope these obstacles are soon a thing of the past and the SuperTanker does not experience any additional delays for future deployments."
The Spirit of John Muir has limitations on where it can fly – it has contracts with Cal Fire, the Oregon Department of Forestry, the state of Colorado and several Colorado cities and counties, and Wheeler is working on a contract with the U.S. Forest Service.
It's still unknown whether the plane would be stationed at McClellan Airport or another Cal Fire facility. Wheeler said the plane would stay in California for as long as necessary.
"These deployments are dependent on many factors – weather conditions, containment, available assets – that are impossible to predict," he said. "It is our understanding that Cal Fire is currently stretched to the limit with its current assets, but we do not know how things will change in the coming days or weeks. One of the reasons wildfire is so terrifying is because it is unpredictable."
Aside from the United States, the SuperTanker fought fires in Chile in 2017 and was deployed in Israel in 2016.