OLYMPIA, Wash. - Heading into the peak of wildfire season, the Department of Natural Resources just unveiled a new tool it plans to use to keep communities safe.
This year, Washington has already seen an unprecedented 900 fires that have burned 28,000 acres.
“Last year, around this time, we were more in the 500 range,” said Hilary Franz, DNR Commissioner of Public Lands.
David Ritchie sees the damage firsthand. He’s the DNR’s chief helicopter pilot.
Ritchie said wildfires are getting worse, especially in western Washington.
Transmission lines and tall buildings make traditional 100-foot-long lines and Bambi buckets tough for helicopter crews to use in Puget Sound.
“Before we got the tank, our only option for fighting fires was the Bambi buckets, which kind of restricted us in the urban interface,” said Ritchie.
This year, the DNR invested in its first belly tank. It cost $160,000 to buy the equipment and add it to one of the state’s existing Vietnam-era helicopters.
“This enables us to be far more effective in getting on top of that fire and doing it safely,” said Franz.
The belly tank is attached to the bottom of a helicopter and holds 323 gallons of water that gets dumped on burning forests and fields. Pilots can easily refill the tank.
“This is the snorkel in the pump. It’s about a 450-gallon-per-minute pump, so the tank will fill up in about 30 seconds,” said Ritchie.
July rain has kept wildfires at bay, but the DNR expects a busy August and September.
Crews believe the belly tank will play a big role in combating the smoke and flames.
“Our air assets are key for initial attack. They get on those fires and contain them quickly so that the hand crews can get in, our firefighters can get in safely on the ground and contain it without threatening their own lives and also making sure the fire doesn’t spread quickly to communities,” said Franz.
The DNR hopes to add two to three more belly tanks to its firefighting fleet.
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