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“It’s been a game-changer”: Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) helps fight wildfires in the Southwest

It releases 9,400 gallons of slurry in a single drop
Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) helps fight wildfires in the Southwest
Published: May. 18, 2022 at 10:27 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The National Weather Service is warning about hot and windy conditions. Starting Thursday, much of the Southwest will be placed on ‘High Fire Danger,including most of New Mexico and parts of Arizona. The two states have already experienced large-scale wildfires this spring that ravaged miles of land.

As the fire threat continues to grow, so does the effort to protect lives, property and precious habitat.

The U.S. Forest Service recently gave KOLD News 13 an up-close look at its aircraft working out of Libby Army Airfield in Fort Huachuca.

Sharing a runway with large military aircraft like the C-130 is an even bigger plane. The Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) was once a commercial airliner. It’s been gutted and retrofitted to serve a new purpose.

“The air tankers play a pivotal role in the suppression of our fires,” said Steven Miranda, a fire management officer with the Coronado National Forest.

The VLAT is 170 feet long; nose to tail. It can release up to 9,400 gallons of fire retardant, also known as slurry, in a single drop.

“Every time they leave, they drop everything and come back,” said Freddie Tavares, an assistant air tanker manager.

Tavares says it takes about 30 minutes to refuel and reload.

A red powdery chemical called MVP-Fx is mixed with water in two large tanks near the tarmac. The water turns it into a gel-like substance, which then is pumped through pipes and into the VLAT. Miranda says fire retardant is basically a non-toxic fertilizer that washes off with a few rains.

“There’s a misconception; a belief that the air tankers put the fire out and, ‘Why weren’t we doing more? Supplying more air tankers?’” Miranda said.

According to Miranda, a lot of coordination goes into a drop. Fire retardant is usually released around the edges of a wildfire, which allows firefighters to come in and extinguish it. The bright red dye is not for the ground crew, but for the pilots so they know where it’s already been dropped.

“If by chance there needs to be an escape or a rapid movement out by the firefighters, sometimes they will utilize that fire retardant to buy those firefighters a little bit of time to get out,” Miranda said.

The U.S. Forest Service also has a Large Air Tanker (LAT), turboprop airplane and helicopter at Libby Army Airfield. With exceptional drought and more fire activity, the agency is trying to stay on top of disaster.

“It has been a game changer for the region in general,” Miranda said.

The U.S. Forest Service has been running the VLAT out of Fort Huachuca for the past three years. Right now, it’s helping fight wildfires in New Mexico.

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