Calif. fire tank draws skepticism, interest

By Steve Geissinger
Contra Costa Times (California)  
Copyright 2007 Contra Costa Newspapers
All Rights Reserved

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Fears of wildfires are running hot, and a German defense contractor said Friday that it can help cool them in California — with a military tank converted into a unique and powerful flame-penetrating rescue and firefighting machine.

The red tanks are designed to feed oxygen to their crews and engines, spout high-pressure cooling sprays for two hours and drive through fires that have trapped homeowners or firefighters.

Airmatic, a subsidiary of a German defense contractor, plans to start worldwide marketing in September in California.

"Forest fires are occurring due to climate change more and more," said Arwed Exner of Airmatic, citing recent polls indicating that Californians are increasingly worried about the prospect.

"Access to some fires is a problem for wheeled vehicles, while the efficiency of dangerous aerial firefighting is limited," he said.

The tanks are foreseen as potentially operating in a unit of six to attack where they are most needed.

Some of the firefighting experts in the United States, used to well intentioned but poorly thought-out ideas to quell firestorms, had similar, initial responses to the tank: "What?"

That was the first reaction to using wide-body jetliners as aerial firefighting tankers. The state is now trying one; the U.S. Forest Service remains opposed. The contracted DC-10 nearly crashed last month but is expected to resume flying next week.

Like the jetliners, the German firefighting tank prototype is drawing both skepticism and interest, from the state Capitol to U.S. agencies, as practicality is matched against needs. In past years in California, from the Oakland hills blaze to the more recent San Diego wildfires, trapped residents and firefighters have died.

"I don't close the door on any new ideas," said Assemblyman Pedro Nava, a Santa Barbara Democrat heading the new joint legislative committee on emergency services. "I'd like to see the state take a look at it, and I'd like to take a look at it, as well."

Matt Mathes, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said his agency would examine the tank.

"But we'll have a lot of questions," Mathes said.

Questions include cost and swiftly getting the tank, which must be transported on a truck, to where it is needed in a chaotic emergency that includes fleeing residents and arriving emergency vehicles.

Water-filled buckets slung under highly mobile helicopters are used to make drops around trapped residents or firefighters, he said.

"How do you guarantee that a tank is in the right place at the right time?" Mathes asked.

But firefighting officials acknowledged that bulldozers are currently transported to wildfires on trucks equipped with red lights and siren.

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