PRINCETON, Minn. - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ fleet of wildfire-combating airplanes has doubled this year, and not a moment too soon.
Dozens of wildfires have local and regional firefighters in full alert across the state. Ron Stoffel, the DNR’s wildfire suppression supervisor, estimated his department responded to “about 50 or 60” different wildfires across the state Thursday alone, with the six new FireBoss airplanes helping combat 15 of those fires.
“Yesterday was a real snappy day for us statewide with wildfires,” he said.
Gov. Mark Dayton signed Friday an emergency executive order directing the Minnesota National Guard to join the fight as dry and windy conditions have persisted throughout the week.
Prior to this year, the DNR owned two CL-215 airplanes to combat fires. But it was getting harder to find parts, service and low-lead fuel for the 1950s engines.
“They were based on technology from World War II,” Stoffel said. “The engines were last manufactured in 1953. They were very good aircraft, but Bombardier, the manufacturer, doesn’t support them anymore.”
That forced the DNR to switch to the smaller, newer FireBoss airplanes.
The department has leased six single-seat FireBoss planes - four with floats built and installed by St. Paul-based Wipaire, two land-based “seats” that must reload water while landed - from Aero Spray for peak fire season. The Appleton, Minn., company provides maintenance and pilots for the aircraft.
The FireBoss airplanes have only a single 800-gallon water tank, compared to the CL-215’s 1,400-gallon capacity.
But Jesse Weaver, an Aero Spray pilot who has flown FireBoss planes for the DNR since the department’s first short-term lease in 2007, said the new planes make up for the lack of capacity in other ways.
“When they’re paired up like they usually are, the FireBosses have more capability,” he said, noting the lighter planes are more nimble and maneuverable than the CL-215s.
The four float planes can refill its water tank by skimming the surface of nearby lakes. The pilots suck up water through two pipes in the floats, which run up to the tank on the belly of the aircraft. It’s all done on the fly, meaning less time between drops than landing to reload.
“When you get down and have the scoops out, there is a lot more drag on the plane,” Weaver said. “But this is a powerful airplane - it has 1,600 horsepower.”
The planes can also be split up to help fight more fires on busy days like Thursday.
“We probably would have gotten to less fires (with the CL-215s) than we did yesterday,” Stoffel said.
Best of all, the DNR estimates it will save about $700,000 in annual contracting costs by making the switch, and could stand to save another $300,000 through sharing the contracting costs with other state agencies.
The flexibility of the FireBoss planes also present a logistical problem for Stoffel, but a good problem to have: The lightweight planes use standard jet fuel and don’t need as much runway to takeoff and land, which opens up many more airfields across the state to the DNR for refueling that agency must now choose where to put them.
“We couldn’t have gotten a CL-215 here, there isn’t enough room for it to land,” he said at the Princeton airport. “Now we have so many choices, it’s tough to pick where we can possibly station them.”
As it stands, there are four permanent bases the DNR will station the fixed-wing, turbopropeller aircraft in Bemidji, Brainerd, Ely and Hibbing.
“They’re really important for fighting fires on the front lines,” Stoffel said. “They are very good at knocking a fire down, but it’s the firefighters on the ground that knock them out.”