Water Scooper Aircraft Poised In the Black Hills

Jun 3, 2016

The airplanes are the only two operating in the U.S. right now.
Credit Kenzie Wagner / SDPB

UPDATE: Officials with the Forest Service say the scoopers were called out to fight large fires in Alaska.

The Black Hills is temporary home for two U.S. Forest Service water scooper airplanes. 

Each aircraft can skim a lake, scoop up about 1,600 gallons of water to carry and drop on wildfires.

The two Bombardier CL 415’s are the only forest service scoopers currently operational in the country. Officials say the planes are on hand due to potential wildfire conditions in the area.

“Right now, with these conditions, and the forecast conditions coming next week, it’s a pretty high priority for the country,”  says scooper Program Specialist Kevin Merrill.

Merrill is standing at the Tanker base at the Rapid City Regional Airport.  Merrill says the $37 million  planes are used throughout the U.S., but since the Black Hills has seen little moisture, a lot of wind, and spring wildfires, the best place for the planes to be in is South Dakota right now.

“This is the third year of what the forest service is calling the Amphibious Water Scooper Aircraft Program, it’s a brand new program, we’re learning as we go, we’re taking a lot of lead from our Canadian counterparts, who have used these machines successfully for many decades, but it’s a new tool to us and we’re figuring out in the different places we go across the country, they’re proven to be very effective,” says Merrill.

The plane's undercarriage, where the 1600 gallons of water are dumped onto wildfires.
Credit Kenzie Wagner / SDPB

Merrill says the water scooper planes are part of a unique U.S. Forest Service project that supplies initial attack efforts to help get wildfires under control fast.  The airplane’s pilots skim across water bodies, going 100 miles an hour, scooping up nearly 12,000 pounds of water, and then going to the scene of the wildfire and dumping off their load.  Merrill says they repeat the process as many times as it takes.  For these reasons, Merrill encourages people to stay away from the planes when they’re in action.

“And what we’re asking the public’s cooperation is if they see these airplanes circling around their water body, their boat, we ask them just to move to the side and allow us a scooping lane. What that means is there’s a wildfire someplace and we really want to work in conjunction with the recreationalists and not have to have a law enforcement presence. We want to have everyone cooperate, move to the side and let us do our job and fight some fire,” says Merrill.

Officials say the three bodies of water suitable for the scooper planes in the Black Hills area are Angostura Reservoir, Keyhole Reservoir or Deerfield Lake.