When the Super Scooper firefighting airplane first swooped down from the Oklahoma sky, several local residents called 911 to report a plane crashing into the water.
This amphibious aircraft made its national debut in Guthrie in 2014 when it skimmed water from Liberty Lake to aerially attack the large fire nearby. Formally called the Aero-Flite CL 415 Air Tanker, the plane can fill its reservoir with 1,600 gallons of water at 80 knots (or just over 90 mph) in just 12 seconds, says George Geissler, director of Oklahoma Forestry Services (OFS), a division of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
It offers some of the fastest turnaround times among the aircraft available to Oklahoma during times of peak wildfire activity. The Super Scooper spent just eight minutes between loads at Guthrie. Some called the plane Oklahoma’s saving grace in that fire, as the Super Scooper gave ground crews a fighting chance.
“All that firefighting aircraft are designed to do is to slow the spread of a wildfire,” Geissler says. “It’s a mechanism to cool and knock down the fire, allowing firefighters to work more directly to contain it. This is a misconception from the average citizen all the way to some firefighters: the idea that the use of aircraft alone puts out a fire.”
The aircraft is just one of several types of firefighting aircraft OFS may request for assistance through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.
Geissler says a longstanding relationship between state forestry agencies and the U.S. Forest Service provides valuable wildland firefighting for the nation. The agreement gives Oklahoma and other states access to personnel and equipment, in addition to a variety of aircraft that may carry water, chemical suppressants and fire retardants.
“We started to use aircraft much heavier around 2011 to get to the fire quicker and keep them small,” Geissler says. “You typically get into the use of aviation assets with larger fires where something of value is threatened, such as a house or farmland. Aviation is called for a relatively small percentage of the overall total fires.”
OFS dispatches firefighting aircraft based on a combination of factors, including the type of fire, aircraft availability and the fire’s location. For example, the Super Scooper needs a nearby lake with at least one mile of open water to fill, such as the scenario at the Fort Supply Reservoir. The Super Scooper got water from this lake in 2014 to fight a fire in Woodward County, the same week as in Guthrie. The plane dumped 40,000 gallons of water in total.
California’s high-value properties may make the state’s wildfires garner media attention. But for the last two years, Oklahoma has led the nation in both the number of fires and acres burned, Geissler says. Thousands of fires burn several hundreds of thousands of acres each year in Oklahoma. Most of Oklahoma has fire ecology with a variety of vegetation, including grasses and trees, that have fire as part of their normal, healthy life cycle, Geissler says. However, humans cause most fires, whether unintentional or not.
“We are living and working in an area that is prone to fire,” he says. “Crops come into play, and humans living in what we call the wildland-urban interface put values at risk that weren’t there before. You can’t have fires race across the landscape anymore.”