Oregon Trails: Fighting Fire

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MEDFORD, Ore. — The fire season is starting to wind down, but not without leaving hundreds of thousands of acres in the west blackened and once again, millions of dollars is being spent to control and contain the fieriest that seem to be getting more intense every year.

For more than a hundred years, the first line of defense when wildfire strikes has been the boots-on-the-ground firefighter with a shovel, Pulaski or chainsaw. After World War II, a new tool emerged for knocking down flames, especially in tough-to-reach areas of the west: the air tanker.

”The air tanker business actually started in Northern California and Southern Oregon. But back in the mid-50’s it had moved up to the Medford area, here, uh, probably in the late 50’s, early 60’s. And it was in a Stearman aircraft. It was a crop duster that could haul 200 gallons and then it evolved into multi-engine airplanes,” said former pilot Lee Gossett.

It wasn’t long before surplus world war two bombers became available, and other war birds were fitted with tanks and the capacity doubled, tripled or quadrupled.

Bill Rosenbaum was the first guy to really get into the big tankers here in Medford. It was Bill Rosenbaum, Dick Foy, and Dale Newton who were kind of the nucleus here, and Dennis Connors. The heavy air tanker business really started right here in Medford as far as the big 4-engine tankers go,” recalled Gossett.

Photos taken by Medford photographer Ken Knackstedt in the late 50’s or early 60’s show some of the tankers practicing water drops at the Medford Airport. In real action they used a mixture of retardant chemicals called “borate.”

“But the borate only lasted for several years when the found it had heavy salts that sterilized the soil…was harmful to animals. So, that was replaced with another material that had a fertilizer in it, but it was very basic back then. There were just bags of this borate that was mixed with water and pumped directly into the aircraft,” said Gossett.

“The classic use of the retardant is to use it as an auxiliary fire line. Perhaps you want to paint it in to a place where you can’t get people on the ground quickly enough, or safely. So you use the retardant in there to slow the advance on one of the flanks of the fire,” described Brian Ballou, with the Oregon Department of Forestry.

By the 1980’s civilian aircraft began to join the fleet of fire tankers, like DC-4’s and now DC-7’s.

“The earliest airplanes here uh, were the PB2’s and then they had the B-25’s, the B-26’s, the B-17’s and the PB4Y2’s. Those were 4 engine planes. The B-17 and the PB4Y, and they were the mainstays of the air tanker business for many, many years,” said Gossett.

Shortly after the gulf war Erickson Aircrane, which made a name for itself by converting surplus Sikorsky helicopters into a very effective wildfire fighting tool, developed a system to use the warthog tank killer jet aircraft into a wildfire tanker.

Then came a scandal where-in a Rogue Valley aircraft broker, Roy Reagan, was accused of diverting surplus military aircraft designated for firefighting to other uses. In response, the federal government quit making the warthog or any other aircraft available and the warthog project died. Air tankers have really come a long way since the days of Stearman and World War II bombers. Now jets are joining the firefight. And it could be that they could also join the fleet here in Southern Oregon.

“Because of the large volume of retardant that you put inside of a DC-10, you have to have the capability to fill it up! So, the options that they’ve talked about here is actually moving in, it would be a semi-portable retardant loading system for the DC-10’S. Comes in on a flatbed or two, and they’re able to roll right up to that and then get filled up quickly so they can be used in a reasonably seamless fashion when there’s active fires going on and you really need to move the retardant out quickly,” explained Brian Ballou.

Gossett said the use of civilian aircraft will continue to grow because those old airliners are proving to be more durable than their military surplus counterparts. Lee Gossett says the DC-10 jet air tanker can haul up to 20,000 gallons of retardant. That’s about ten times the amount carried by the DC-7 now being used.