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HomeLocal NewsNew MexicoAir Tanker Base for wildfire suppression revamped at Kirtland Air Force Base

Air Tanker Base for wildfire suppression revamped at Kirtland Air Force Base

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – After one of the most devastating wildfires in New Mexico history, Albuquerque is now home to a new hub where some of the nation’s biggest firefighting air tankers should be able to respond to blazes faster.

When it comes to wildfires, time matters. “It’s tremendous. The efficiency and the speed in which we can load and then launch these planes is increased tremendously,” said Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands Fire Staff Officer Matt Rau.

The U.S. Forest Service and Kirtland Air Force Base have expanded their partnership as they made some major upgrades to the Cibola National Forest Air Tanker Base. The base can now accommodate very large air tankers (VLATs) which hold more than 9,000 gallons of fire retardant.

“The air tanker delivery of retardant certainly doesn’t put fires out, but what it does is it buys time to firefighters on the ground to get in and actually do their work,” said Rau.

More than $15 million went into upgrading support ramps for the large aircraft providing access for DC-10s and other aircraft to fill up on retardant. With 10 Tanker moving its headquarters to New Mexico ten years ago, project managers knew they needed a better facility. “This base was always a full-service base for all aircraft but once the VLATs came on the scene and emerged, then that was the impetus for us to reevaluate the base capability,” added Rau.

The old system took an hour and a half to fill up a plane with fire retardant. Now, they say it will take 45 minutes. “Air tankers from this base deliver retardant to suppress wildfires across the southwest and beyond,” said Regional Forester for the USDA Forest Service Southwestern Region, Michiko Martin.

There are also four new tanks that hold 25,000 gallons of fire retardant each. All of which is expected to help crews load up and respond to wildfires a lot faster. “With the new retardant plant that we built to support these operations, the pump capability, the piping, the plumbing is all brand new. It’s all designed for maximum speed and efficiency to get these planes back in the air,” said Rau.

It took two years to complete the renovations and construction of the base. The air tanker base opened in April for fire season and is expected to stay active until mid-July or whenever monsoon season begins. 

Another part of the expansion allows simultaneous filling of more than one very large air tanker at a time. The base is now just one of two bases in the country with those capabilities.

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