Improved air tanker base for fighting wildfires unveiled at Kirtland Air Force Base

May 17—As fire season looms, the U.S. Forest Service is amping up its readiness with major improvements for air tankers that take the battle to wildfires, dropping fire retardant on the blazes below.

Kirtland Air Force Base and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service unveiled upgrades on Friday to the Albuquerque Air Tanker Base at Kirtland, which were made to increase the speed, efficiency and readiness of tankers outfitted to douse the dangerous flames.

The Forest Service, Department of Defense and Kirtland have partnered for years in wildland firefighting. But officials said a surge in wildfires led to the upgrades.

"The discussion to reinforce the ramps here at Kirtland to support VLAT (very large air tankers) started in 2018," Col. Michael Power, commander of the 377th Air Base Wing and the installation commander for Kirtland Air Force Base, said at a news conference . "Since then, some heavy wildfire seasons have increased the urgency to complete the work on the ramp to be able to support these heavier aircraft."

Michiko Martin, regional forester for the southwestern region of the USDA Forest Service, said the need for an upgrade in tanker service was pressing.

"In 2022, the base opened two weeks early due to extreme conditions and delivered a historic 1.9 million gallons of retardant and 376 fills," Martin said.

That was the year of the disastrous Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, the largest fire in New Mexico history.

The improvements, Martin added, represent the Forest Service's commitment to quashing busy fire seasons.

"We remain committed to combatting the wildfire crisis and continuing to protect our forests, grasslands and the communities where we live and work," Martin said.

Power praised New Mexico's congressional delegation for championing the project to the tune of $15.5 million, which was set aside to complete the renovations to the ramp to accommodate the very large air tankers, similar to the DC-10 tanker that arrived on the base's airfield Friday. The new facility was ready at the end of April.

The upgrades involved improving the airfield ramp for very large air tankers , which can accommodate 9,000 gallons of fire retardant, as opposed to the maximum 4,000-gallon capacity of large tankers. Four new giant tanks at the Kirtland facility, each with a capacity of 25,000 gallons, are poised to do just that.

Power said the fact that the VLATs will hold much more fire retardant means the Forest Service will now be able to potentially extinguish most smaller wildfires before they can get out of control. He said the Kirtland location is centralized enough to allow the tankers to reach most trouble spots in the state and region, plus help New Mexico's neighbors when needed.

The air tanker base will also respond to fires in Arizona, California, Colorado, Louisiana, Texas and Utah.

Matt Rau, Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands fire, fuels and aviation staff officer, explained the enormity of the shift and the unique capabilities the base now offers. He said in the past the service used a mobile retardant base, but they were only able to service one VLAT at a time. After the upgrades, it's different.

"This was always the dream, to be able to have our base be a full-service base for all types of aircraft that we have in the fleet. And we finally realized that," Rau said. "The other part of this expansion was to allow simultaneous filling of VLATs."

Further, Rau said, the speed of response is expected to be greatly improved, for several reasons.

"The efficiency and the speed in which we can load and launch these planes is increased tremendously ... and the range and speed of these larger aircraft allows us to reach out to distances that we just weren't reasonably able to reach out to support. Time is such a factor when it comes to wildlands fires. Minutes count."

Planes come in, prioritized for landing if the need exists, are refueled, reloaded with retardant and sent airborne again. That could involve up to 30 people doing tasks at the Air Tanker Base. And that's a 45-minute turnaround for the giant VLATs, from the time they get on the ground, refuel, give the pilots a chance to take a break, load up with retardant and take off again.

That's a significant improvement, Rau said, over previous operations that could take over and hour and a half per plane.

"It's all designed for maximum speed and efficiency to get these planes back in the air," Rau said of the upgrades.

With its ramped-up capabilities, the air tanker base is now just one of two bases in the country that can fill two giant tankers at the same time.

"The other one is McClennan, California," Rau said.

The Kirtland air tanker base also includes a central hub for monitoring and managing firefighting operations and providing a place for pilots to rest between flights.

Fire season in New Mexico usually peaks when the weather is driest and windiest, then tapers off during the summer monsoon season. But this year meteorologists believe that monsoon season might start late.

"That would allow for some of those more elevated to critical fire weather conditions to continue through June," said National Weather Service meteorologist Bladen Breitreiter.

Either way, it pays to practice fire safety by not parking on grass or throwing cigarettes out windows, and abiding by red flag warnings to avoid outdoor burning, Breitreiter said.

"It only takes one spark and then we end up with what could be a disaster."