Two Bulls Fire west of Bend

by: HOLLY M. GILL - One of the MD-87s is ready for deployment, parked at the Madras Municipal Airport with Mount Jefferson in the background, earlier this year.When the Two Bulls Wildfire broke out on Saturday, west of Bend, Erickson Aero Tanker, of Madras, was one of the first to deploy an air tanker for retardant drops.

After a three-and-one-half year process, last week, Erickson sent its first and second tankers to the Redmond airport on contract with the U.S. Forest Service for firefighting.

"Tanker 101 went on contract Wednesday morning (June 4) and moved to the Redmond U.S. Forest Service tanker base at the airport," said Glen Newton, air tanker operations manager, adding that Tanker 105 went on contract Sunday morning, and was immediately put in service dropping retardant on the fire.

When the local fire is contained, the aircraft, each with a pilot, co-pilot and mechanic, will be on standby for fire dispatch, which could take them anywhere in the country, he said.

In addition to the two MD-87 aircraft, which are already on contract with the USFS, a third MD-87 is being prepped for firefighting.

"They can opt to add on an additional equipment contract," Newton explained. "Early indications are that they will, but we don't have any hard timing on that. We have crews and maintenance crews ready to go on that as well."

Tanker 101 worked both days of the weekend, and Tanker 105 started work on Sunday. After rapid expansion of the fire over the weekend, the fire was listed at 6,800 acres on Tuesday morning, with 25 percent containment.

"They did really well on the fire," said Newton, who oversaw the operation on Monday from the Redmond airport. "We got a lot of retardant out there."

For its firefighting operation, Erickson Aero Tanker purchased a total of seven MD-87s, but four have yet to be converted from airliners to air tankers. The company also has three DC-7s, two of which are on contract with the Oregon Department of Forestry, and will be based in Redmond and Medford, beginning the first week of July.

"We just signed a contract with Cal Fire for the third DC-7 that will be based in Chico, Calif.," he said.

Over the past few months, the staff at the Erickson operation has increased to about two dozen. "We've added six or eight people," said Newton. "We hired new mechanics that are relocating to Madras or Central Oregon. The pilots don't relocate."

Newton is pleased to finally have the air tankers on contract. "It's been a little chaotic lately, but we're getting there," he said. "It's been three and one-half years of effort and expense to get the first aircraft on contract; it's pretty exciting."

Under its former contract, the USFS could have added up to 10 total aircraft from Aero Tanker, as well as additional air tankers from other companies, but that option has been terminated.

"Now they will be rebid," he said.

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