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Super tankers might be in the firefighting mix

With all the fires that are burning, why don't they use the super tanker to help put out these fires? By using this tanker, they can help put an end to some of the fires.

— Frank A., Medford

Would you mind if we set the stage a bit on what a super tanker is for other readers first, Frank? It almost sounds like a name for a Transformer robot without context.

The U.S. Forest Service refers to what you call a super tanker as a "very large air tanker," or "VLAT" for short, according to agency public affairs specialist Jennifer Jones.

These aircraft, which have a capacity of 8,000 gallons or more, are used to drop fire retardant, keeping ground crews safer while they build containment lines. Large air tankers, or "LATs," have tanks that are anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 gallons.

Either way, that's certainly a lot of fire retardant. But when it comes to using it, it's not for direct suppression. Each drop is meant to deal a solid punch to a wildfire, slow it down, but not snuff it out completely.

"Air tankers are not used to suppress wildfires directly, and are most effective when used in coordination with firefighters on the ground," Jones told Since You Asked via email. "Fire managers on the ground order air tankers to drop fire retardant based on the strategies and tactics they are using to manage wildfires."

The 747 VLAT is the largest of its kind the Forest Service uses, but they do not have a contract to provide them for wildfire suppression. They are working toward it, however.

Under some circumstances, the Forest Service can deploy a VLAT — which includes other large aircraft such as DC-10s — to a severe wildfire using an existing contract. The Forest Service has 28 air tankers mobilized for wildfire suppression across the U.S., and three of those are DC-10s, available through previous contract agreements, Jones said.

Of the 28 currently mobilized, five are in Oregon — all LATs — with one stationed in Klamath Falls, one in La Grande and three in Redmond. That could change, however.

"We move them around virtually every day," Jones said.

— Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.