Wallow Fire: Slurry bombers essential to fire fight

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WINSLOW, Ariz. -- Many of the air tankers, aka slurry bombers, that are working the massive Wallow Fire burning in eastern Arizona near Alpine are based out of Winslow Airport, about 100 miles northwest of the fire.

Bruce Haffner gave us a look at some of those tankers from the perspective of the Fort McDowell Casino News Chopper.

The base can accommodate up to 10 planes, all of which carry a kind of fire retardant called slurry. That's why the planes are often called slurry bombers. Each tanker holds about 2,500 gallons of slurry per load.

Slurry is a mixture of water, fertilizer and a thickening agent. It’s meant to protect trees and other flammable materials from flames. The coating sticks to vegetation, insulating it from the fire. The fertilizer is a starting point to help new vegetation grow in the burned areas once the fire is out.

The slurry's red color helps pilots drop it in a continuous line ahead of the approaching fire. Once the slurry is dropped, bulldozers move in to cut a fire break.

One benefit of slurry over water drops is that the fertilizer does not evaporate. The thickening agent also keeps the slurry from dissipating in the air.

While three air tankers did take off Monday morning, several more were held on the ground because of high winds that were gusting up to 40 mph and low visibility due to smoke and haze.

Jerry Sullivan, who manages the air-tanker base, said the facility serves four national forests and three reservations.

“That’s quite an area to cover in initial attack,” he said.

As helpful as the air tankers are in containing wildfires, the pilots are at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Several of the slurry bombers are P-3 Orions, which were originally anti-submarine aircraft that were built in the 1960s for the Navy.