The largest and most destructive fire burning in California continues to grow, consuming dry brush as it races not just through but across the canyons north of Los Angeles. Strong winds and dry conditions mean flames can leap large distances, prompting thousands to evacuate their homes. The Thomas Fire has now spread from Ventura County into Santa Barbara County, burning up 230,000 acres—an area larger than New York City and Boston combined. The out of control blaze is on track to become one of the largest in California history.
So firefighters are using the largest tools they have to tackle it, including one that’s more than 200 feet long, and does its work from just 200 feet above the ground.
“We avoid flying through smoke at all costs, but you can smell the fire 200 miles out, even at 20,000 feet,” says Marcos Valdez, one of the pilots of the Global Supertanker, a Boeing 747 modified to fight the fiercest of fires. The jumbo jet can drop 19,200 gallons of fire retardant liquid per trip, nearly double the capacity of the next largest air tanker, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Fully stocked, the plane weighs in at 660,000 pounds, comfortably under its 870,000-pound max takeoff weight.
Step inside (which you can do in the interactive 3-D model below) and you’ll see that the upper floor looks pretty normal, with the cockpit and a few seats. Head down the stairs to the main floor, though, and you’ll see the key changes its owner, Global Supertanker LLC, made when it converted the Japan Airlines passenger plane to a firefighter in 2016: In what looks like the interior of a submarine, you’ll find eight cylindrical white tanks in two rows.
Holding the fire suppressant liquid in separate tanks means the 747, aka The Spirit of John Muir, can make up to eight segmented drops on multiple small fires, or put down a solid two miles of fire line, to try to protect property or contain a fire. The liquid drops through a big hose, through a series of manhole-cover-sized circular nozzles under the plane, near the back. (If you use the “Dollhouse” view on the 3-D model, you can see some of that detail on the very lower deck.)
The plane is based in Colorado Springs, but its owner contracts it out to fire agencies in need. This week it’s flying out of Sacramento, in the northern part of the state. That’s because it can carry so much flame retardant that picking it up in Southern California wouldn’t leave enough for the smaller aerial firefighters. Plus, with a 600-mph cruise speed, it can reach the perimeter of the Thomas fire in just 38 minutes.
The 747 and other fixed wing aircraft sat out the early days of the fight against these fires, because high wind speeds would have blown their liquid retardant unpredictably off course. Though the pink stuff won’t damage people or property (good news for this guy), pilots make an effort to avoid dumping it on firefighters on the ground. The 747 can actually lay such a long line of retardant that it can be used to draw a line to safety for people trapped in a “burn-over” situation, where flames threaten to engulf them.
When the Supertanker reaches a fire, it doesn’t just drop down and fire away. The whole operation is a carefully orchestrated affair. Valdez, the pilot, starts by flying at 1,000 feet up, watching a “show me” flight by a lead plane, usually a Rockwell OV-10 Bronco or Beechcraft King Air. That has likely been in the air for hours, and directs each tanker aircraft exactly where to make its drops, pointing out hazards like power lines or tall rocks over the radio. “They’re using signals like ‘Start at this tree that’s split,’ ‘Fly on the right flank of the fire,’ and ‘I want to you stop at this rock that looks like a bear,’” Valdez says.
Then Valdez pushes the yoke forward until he and his crew are flying 200 to 300 feet above the ground—in a jet whose wingspan is just over 200 feet. Valdez plays down the terror, comparing it to driving next to a concrete barrier down the center of a highway. You know it’s there, and that one wrong move could kill you, but you just keep your heading and your cool.
The whole drop is over in 10 minutes, and then it’s time to head back to Sacramento, making for a two-hour roundtrip. On Friday, the Supertanker performed three drops on the Thomas fire—each gratefully received by the firefighters trying to stop the flames reaching more property, and people.