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New tanker works faster than WWII-era plane

Newer, bigger, faster and more expensive.

That describes the water-scooping plane contracted to fight fires in Eastern Washington this summer, compared with the vintage World War II plane it replaces, according to state officials who unveiled the new plane Monday at Deer Park Airport.

Federal regulations prohibited the Patrol Bomber Y plane – the region’s main firefighting plane for more than 20 years – from working fires on federal land because of its age. The 1987 Canadair CL-215 Tanker 262 that will be used this fire season can scoop up to 1,440 gallons of water in 10 seconds from rivers, lakes and reservoirs, compared with 1,500 gallons in about 15 seconds for the old PBY.

But the CL-215 also flies faster, meaning more water can be applied in a shorter amount of time. And unlike the PBY, the CL-215 is cleared to dump water on fires on all lands, including federal forests and rangeland.

“It gives us the kind of flexibility that we need,” said Doug Sutherland, state commissioner of public lands. “Fire doesn’t pay any attention to where the border is.”

Two fatal firefighting plane crashes in 2002 prompted the federal government to reassess plane contracts, and officials ruled the 1946 PBY Tanker 85 unfit for federal fires. The PBY’s five-year contract expired this year, and the state Department of Natural Resources opted not to renew it.

The base contract prices for the planes are similar – about $250,000 for the PBY and $240,000 for the CL-215. But the CL-215’s per-hour flight cost is much higher – $6,000 versus about $600.

The federal government pitched in about $150,000 for this year’s contract as an incentive for the state to find an aircraft that could be used on all lands, said Mark Kahley, resource protection division manager for the DNR.

The PBY’s owner, Bud Rude, has contested the new contract bid. The CL-215 is under a temporary, supplemental contract.

The bright yellow, two-engine plane spent time at the airport the past three summers and has fought fires around the state and nation, said its pilot, Matt Ziomek of Aero-Flite Inc., the Kingman, Ariz.-based company that owns the plane.

As of Monday, the plane is ready to go. Officials anticipate it may be used to fight a wildfire in Grant County or another one in the Columbia Basin area.

Ed Lewis, chief of Spokane County Fire District 4 in Deer Park, said the plane will provide better service than the PBY.

“It’s going to be a faster turnaround time,” Lewis said. “They’re a very effective firefighting aircraft. I’m very pleased to have it here.”

One concern remains, he said: availability. The CL-215’s contract is a cooperative one among several agencies, meaning though the plane will be based in Deer Park, it’s likely to be used elsewhere.

“Obviously, time will tell how that works out,” Lewis said.



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