With an unprecedented number of wildland forest fires in Colorado and the bulk of the Western states this summer, the air tankers at Rocky Mountain Municipal Airport have been especially busy.
“They’ve been based here all summer, but it really took off in August,” Airport Senior Planner Ben Miller said. “They were fighting fires in Glennwood, the fire in Centennial and Jeffco, briefly. But they’ve been treating the Cameron Peak fire and this week, they’ve been supporting the Calwood, the Lefthand, the Cameron Peak and the East Troublesome fires.”
The U.S. Forest Service maintains a small fleet of orange-and-white air tankers tasked with flying over the fires and dumping red-tinted slurry. The slurry, a mixture of a powdered fire retarding fertilizer mixed with water at the airport, is a key tool in fighting forest fires.
“The forest service contracts with a couple of different companies to provide the planes and do the drops,” Miller said. “They operate what the Forest Service considers the medium to large air tankers.”
The largest air tankers, such as DC 10 aircraft, fly out of Forest Service bases in southern Colorado and Wyoming. The forest service keeps a variety of aircraft types at the Broomfield airport, ranging from helicopters to small single engine tankers up to heavy airtankers and lead planes that scout out the the fires.
“But around here, people consider the aircraft pretty big,” he said. “We have MD-87s and BAe-146, former commercial aircraft.”
Both the BAe-146 — made by British Aerospace Systems — and the McDonnell Douglas MD-87s can carry up to 3,000 gallons of the retardent.
“They have flown 125 missions in a week, since Oct. 13,” Miller said.
The airtanker base was established at the Broomfield airport in 1983, one of three permanent bases in Colorado, The two others are based in Grand Junction and Durango. A fourth permanent base is located in Rapid City, South Dakota and two refill bases are located at airports in Pueblo and Casper, Wyoming.
The base at RMMA includes retardant storage tanks, filling facilities, offices as well as quarters for the pilots.
Miller said the powdered fire retardent is stored at the airport dry and mixed with local water. The airport has the capacity to mix 190,000 gallons of the retardant at a time.
They generally try to take off towards the east, Miller said.
“If the wind is more than a couple of miles per hour, they will start routing so they are taking off into the wind,” he said. “That’s important for all aircraft, but particularly for a very heavily loaded air tanker. They are using a lot of our runway to take off, so they need all the help from the wind that they can get.”