Thousands of gallons of fire retardant ready 24/7 at GJT

At the outskirts of the Grand Junction Regional Airport sits a small office building with four industrial tanks that hold over 30,000 gallons of fire retardant
Published: Jul. 28, 2023 at 12:45 PM MDT
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GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KJCT) - At the outskirts of the Grand Junction Regional Airport sits a small office building with a garage, a secured parking lot, and four huge industrial tanks that hold over 30,000 gallons of concentrated fire retardant.

It’s causally known as just, the tanker base. Talk with Airbase Operations Controller Brian Sommerfeldt, and you’ll learn it’s serious business. Sommerfeldt works for Perimeter Solutions, the company that makes concentrated fire retardant. When mixed with water, it becomes the red stuff you see firefighting planes drop on brush fires on the side of the interstate. That concentrate can fill up a BAE-146 tanker jet about 60 times.

Sommerfeldt says you could call it a gas station for airplanes that fight fires. And when they get a call about a fire that’s just broken out, it’s like a NASCAR pit crew. Staff rush to fill up the planes, pilots get their coordinates and start talking with ground crews, all to start boxing in a fire with retardant that stops the flames just like that.

“The point is to suppress and stop the fire so the ground crew can have adequate time to build lines or to protect houses,” said Sommerfeldt.

David Redman is a pilot with Neptune Aviation, a company that contracts with the U.S. Forest Service to fly these aerial firefighting missions. He’ll tell you it’s all about working with the ground crew to slow down the blaze. So they can build fire lines, that help keep flames from reaching houses or roads or telephone poles.

Redman says it takes a unique skill set to make a plane the size of some commercial airliners fly like a small crop duster.

That plane, the BAE-146, has been converted to a firefighting aircraft with a 3,000-gallon tank. How much of that capacity to use? It’s up to the pilot.

“We don’t fill until we have an order, which gives us some flexibility in case we needed to go a long way. We could add more fuel and less retardant, or if it’s a closer fire, then we can go more retardant, less fuel, so we have some variables there to play with,” said Redman.

Working fast is a huge part of the job. Redman says getting planes in the air right when a fire starts, and using a lot of resources early can save millions of dollars. If a fire grows into a big project that takes months to fight, it can cost $1 to $2 million a day to fight, according to Redman.