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BC Wildfire Service explains why it uses smaller aircraft to fight fires

"The Martin Mars had a big dramatic drop, but modern aircraft allow crews to keep working," the BCWS spokeswoman.

Every year, without fail, the wildfires start and the calls to bring back the venerable Martin Mars water bomber begin anew.

But, the BC Wildfire Service says it uses specific aircraft for specific purposes and firefighting tactics have changed since the giant Mars flying boats made such a spectacle in the Okanagan, when they were used against the massive Okanagan Mountain Park fire in 2003.

The question is such a common one, the wildfire service even has a response to it on its website.

"The Martin Mars has been retired. It was last used to fight a wildfire in B.C. in 2015," the wildfire service says.

In a 2021 interview BCWS spokeswoman Jean Strong told Glacier Media that smaller, fixed-wing tankers and helicopters can target fires more quickly and efficiently.

Aircraft like Coulson Aviation's Hawaii Mars water bomber require big bodies of water with lots of room to land, fill and take off again, BCWS says

And ground crews have to clear out when the plane makes its drop.

"The Martin Mars had a big dramatic drop, but modern aircraft allow crews to keep working," Strong said.

BCWS says its fixed wing aviation fleet had a busy long weekend, with 83 loads of retardant dropped – a total of 665,405 litres – between July 29 and Aug. 1.

During the same period they also delivered 833,849 litres of fire suppressant across 22 fires, "16 of which were initial attack responses to help hold the fires until firefighters were able to undertake their work."

BCWS says when a bird dog plane first arrives at a wildfire, photos are taken and sent back to its operations team to make decisions on how to manage the incident.

The wildfire service has a fleet of 40 aircraft with access to more under contract.

Its options include helicopters, airtankers, and water skimmers.

"The type of aircraft assigned to wildfires is based on need and availability. The number of aircraft being used from day to day and from week to week can fluctuate significantly, depending on the current wildfire situation," the BCWS says.

Helicopters are used for transporting fire crews and equipment, infrared scanning, and use either a bucket or belly tank to drop water, depending on the size of the aircraft.

A further, specialized fleet of helicopters works with Rapattack crews and is equipped with rappel and hoist equipment.

The wildfire service uses two types of airtankers – land-based aircraft and the smaller skimmers, both of which which were seen last year fighting the White Rock Lake wildfire.

The land-based tankers include the jet-powered Avro RJ85 and prop-powered Convair CV-580 and Lockheed L-188 Electra.

The Air Tractor AT-802F Fire Boss water-skimmer gets its name from its ability fill its tanks while skimming the surface of lakes.

The skimmers operate in teams, making repeated small drops that can be more easily targeted.

But these aren't the only aircraft in the wildfire service arsenal.

All airtankers are led by a bird dog plane. Air attack officers on board co-ordinate all other aircraft on the mission.

DC-3s and Twin Otter DCH-6s are also used to transport crews, conduct fire patrols, provide logistics support, and are used as jumpships for parattack crews.

The parattack program includes 13 "smokejumpers" who parachute in to fire sites and two command spotters.

The Twin Otters also have short takeoff and landing capability.

There are about 110 bodies of water in B.C. large enough for a Martin Mars to refill, compared to more than 1,700 for the skimmers, which can shorten turnaround times in many situations.

The skimmers can scoop 3,000 litres of water in about 15 seconds.

The Martin Mars can drop a whopping 27,000 litres.

Only seven Martin Mars were ever built for the U.S. Navy in the 1950s.

The last four were sold as scrap. They were bought by a B.C. forestry consortium and later converted to water bombers.

One crashed in 1961 and another was damaged beyond repair in a storm.

The remaining two were acquired by Coulson in 2007. The Philippine Mars was retired in 2012 and the Hawaii Mars remains moored on Sproat Lake, near Port Alberni.

– with files from the Times Colonist