Wallow Fire: DC-10 tanker joins fire fight

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
Tanker 911 dropped slurry on the Jesusita Fire in Santa Barbara County last year. By Catherine Holland Tanker 911 dropped slurry on the Jesusita Fire in Santa Barbara County last year. By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

MESA, Ariz. -- A very large new weapon in the battle against the massive wind-whipped Wallow Fire burning in Eastern Arizona arrived at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport Thursday morning – a DC-10 tanker.

Photos of the DC-10 in action, its tanks and loading

Incident managers said they plan to send the DC-10 -- call sign Tanker 911 -- to fly over the western part of the Wallow Fire, including the Greer area.

The modified McDonnell Douglas DC-10, which landed shortly after 8:30 a.m., was first used in California in June 2006. The plane is much larger and therefore has a far greater capacity then the traditional slurry bombers. The plane’s three external tanks can carry a whopping 12,000 gallons of fire retardant. The regular P-3 Orions that we usually see over wildfires carry about 2,500 gallons of slurry per load.

The DC-10 tanker usually can be loaded and ready for takeoff in less than 20 minutes, and it has an operating radius of about 500 nautical miles. With that turnaround time, Tanker 911 can make as many as six runs in a day.

Full or partial loads can be dropped with varying coverage levels based on what the incident commanders deem necessary. The line of retardant the plane can lay is as wide as a football field and 1.5 miles long.

While effective, the DC-10 comes with some steep costs -- approximately $56,000 per day with a five-day minimum plus $12,000 per flight hour. That's not including the costs for the retardant the plane will be dropping.

In addition, the big plane does require a certain level of visibility because it cannot fly as low as the regular tankers. A lead plane is also required to guide the pilot of the giant DC-10. Specialized training is necessary to guide such a large aircraft. That lead plane coordinates with another air-attack plane. Troy Waskey, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said that third plane serves as an air-traffic control center from the air and is in constant communication with fire bosses on the ground.

Tanker 911 laid down three lines around Greer before its lead plane was diverted Thursday afternoon. Once that lead plane returns, the DC-10 will be back in the air.

While assignment here in Arizona, Tanker 911 will be based at the Phoenix Interagency Fire Center adjacent to Williams Gateway Airport.

The DC-10, one of two, has been used in hundreds of wildfires in California, Washington state and Victoria, Australia in recent years, but the Wallow Fire will be its first Arizona sortie. Not just a first for the Grand Canyon State, this will be the first time a DC-10 has tackled any wildfire in the Southwest.

The former passenger plane is classified as a VLAT or very large air tanker. The Evergreen 747 Supertanker, also a converted passenger or cargo plane, and the military-grade C-130 are similar aircraft.

"All three of those are quite large; they're quite expensive to get situated," Waskey said. "Once they're engaged, they can do a lot of good work."

Click image for more photos

The request for the DC-10 to work the Wallow Fire came from the federal government, which will reimburse the state for the expenses associated with the plane -- $300,000 at least, depending on how many flight hours it racks up.

According to 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the California-based company that operates the DC-10s, fire fighting experts call the huge planes a “game changer” when it comes to battling wildfires.

The high winds that have whipped up the flames almost daily since the Wallow Fire started on May 29 have also hampered aerial efforts to fight the blaze. Those winds are expected to be less Thursday and Friday, which could give fire crews the break they need to try and get a handle on the Wallow Fire, and Tanker 911 could help them do it.