Arizona prepares for wildfire season with new aircraft

The Avro RJ85, a jet engine air tanker, is the newest addition to Arizona’s wildfire response teams. (Photo by Joey Carrera/Cronkite News)

MESA — An air tanker that can streak to an Arizona wildfire to dump 3,000 pounds of flame retardant in record time is bringing the latest technology to fighting fires.

The tanker, an Avro RJ85, debuted at Phoenix Mesa-Gateway Airport. John Price, assistant air tanker base manager at Mesa-Gateway, said the jet engines in the aircraft are pieces of “artwork” that cut fire response times in half.

It’s more efficient for planes to carry liquid flame retardant than for ground-level firefighters to carry solid flame retardant, officials said. Planes can carry 3,000 gallons of fire retardant that are the equivalent of 27,000 pounds of retardant for crews on land.

“What these (planes) are used for is not so much to put the fire out, it’s also to lay down moisture and use that retardant to slow the fire,” Price said.

More than 600 wildfires have been reported this year in Arizona, said Dolores Garcia, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management.

Intense temperatures and lighting strikes contribute to fires, but they’re not the main cause.

Blame humans, said Carrie Templin, spokeswoman for Tonto National Forest.

“People go out to camp in the woods and we get abandoned campfires,” Templin said. “People go out target shooting.”

“I always say, ‘be extra careful,'” Templin said. “Anytime we have one spark it can start a wildfire, especially this time of year.”