One of the world’s biggest firefighting aircraft is based in Colorado Springs. But it's fighting fires in California right now, rather than in the Mountain West.
The plane is called the Spirit of John Muir and it can dump almost 20,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in six seconds. It's been used to fight fires in Israel, Chile and California, but not yet in Colorado.
“It would be a huge help — a really great tool in the firefighting toolbox that we could use,” says Caley Fischer, a spokesperson with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
Why that’s not happening yet is confusing.
According to Fisher, the plane still needs to be “certified through a cooperative agreement through the Department of the Interior.”
According to the company that owns the plane, it just needs a software update required by the U.S. Forest Service.
Either way, the supertanker managed to get temporary approval to fight fires in California, approval that the company says would also allow the aircraft to fly in other states, like Colorado; California just hired it first.
Whatever the case, for now Colorado will keep quenching the flames using smaller, cheaper aircraft. Fisher says those might be better suited to the wildfire conditions in the state right now anyway.
“Some aircraft may be more appropriate for some of these remote fires in extremely complex terrain, in higher elevations, in hotter temperature settings,” she says. “In such cases, smaller much more maneuverable aircraft like our helicopters or our single-engine air tankers are safer and more effective to be used on some of the fires we’re seeing now in Colorado.”
They’re also a lot cheaper. Fisher says under the contract worked out in Colorado, the Spirit of John Muir would cost $40,900 a day to be on standby, and $26,500 per hour of flight. By contrast, a single-engine air tanker costs about $3,350 an hour.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.