Friday, April 3, 2009

Martin Mars Coming to SoCal for 2009 Fire Season

One of two Martin Mars waterbombers based in Port Alberni has been hired to battle California wildfires this summer and fall, the U.S. Forest Service is expected to announce today.

The Hawaii Mars waterbomber, long a fixture on Vancouver Island, has made it to "the Superbowl of firefighting, " said owner Wayne Coulson earlier this week. The contract calls for the aircraft to be based at Lake Elsinore June 15 to Nov. 15 and includes an option for renewal in 2010. A spokesman for the fire service wasn't available for comment on the contract award yesterday.

The U.S. gig means the former war-time troop carrier won't be available to fight fires in B.C., where it's mainly been used in special circumstances mainly on the south coast. It is not instrumental to the province's overall preparedness, said a forest ministry spokeswoman. The Hawaii Mars got the attention last summer of President George W. Bush and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who circled overhead in a helicopter while it was working at Lake Shasta. The aircraft will likely be given the star treatment and a higher profile this year when it works fires in the Los Angeles area.

The massive flying boat with its 61-metre wingspan dips down to lakes and scoops water at a tonne a second. Last spring, U.S. authorities came to Port Alberni to watch the water bomber being tested on various aspects of its performance. They were impressed, Coulson said. Through the summer, Californians watched 567,000 hectares of the state burn in one of their worst fire seasons. Costs topped $1 billion US. The Martin Mars was on short-term contracts in Lake Shasta and then farther south around Lake Elsinore.

If all goes well in California this year, the Philippine Mars might be returned to service and sent to fight wildfires in Australia, said Coulson, whose company, Coulson Group, owns both aircraft. It's hoped the Martin Mars will help save California homes and structures. Last year, more than 2,300 homes and buildings in the state were destroyed by fire, despite the efforts of helicopters dropping buckets of fire retardant.

The Martin Mars now has the go-ahead to drop fire retardant on homes as it has done on woodland, covering a 1.4-hectare swath encompassing four or five homes. It's the only fixed-wing aircraft in the world with that capability, said Coulson, who noted U.S. Fire Service officials were impressed with the waterbomber' s performance at Lake Shasta last season -- particularly its ability to drop 416,000 litres of retardant in seven hours. "It was a low-cost tool that was highly effective. That drove discussions into the fall, through winter and until now when we signed off on the contract." The contract was a direct award, meaning there was no competitor.

High-tech adaptations include replacing the bird dog, or lead aircraft, from a Cessna fixed-wing aircraft to a Sikorsky S76-B, similar to the Helijet. The chopper has infrared cameras on board and images are sent to fire bosses on the ground. The images will help authorities predict the growth rate of fires and plan attacks, said Coulson. "[The Americans] have been looking for aircraft that can change the game, and that means knock the fire out. The Martin Mars is one of very few assets they can call up and change the game."

(Victoria Times)

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