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Minnesota water bombers will be replaced

A CL-215 aircraft dips into Seagull Lake in 2005 to pick up a load of water to drop on the Alpine Lake fire. (File / News Tribune)1 / 2
Minnesota has ordered six “Fire Boss” firefighting airplanes to lease to take the place of its two aging CL-215s, which are for sale. (Air Tractor Inc. photo)2 / 2

 Two water-bombing airplanes credited with saving homes, cabins, lodges and maybe even a city over the past 14 Minnesota forest fire seasons will be auctioned off by the Department of Natural Resources.

 The state’s two 1970s-vintage CL-215 water bombers are up for auction with a minimum bid of $50,000 each, after DNR fire officials deemed the planes too old to maintain and too expensive to replace.

Bombardier, the Canada-based manufacturer of the planes, is no longer making the CL-215, and it’s faster, bigger CL-415’s are prohibitively expensive, DNR officials say.

“Just about everyone is getting away from the old piston aircraft like the CL-215’s. They are just too much to try to maintain. They don’t even teach it (radial engine maintenance) to aircraft mechanics anymore,’’ said Paul Wannarka, the DNR’s fixed wing fire operations specialist.

While the CL-215’s were built in the late 1970s, the engines that powered them were built during World War II, Wannarka said. They also used leaded gasoline, which is getting harder to find, especially at the remote airports where the CL-215’s were called to battle wildfires.

The DNR briefly looked at the new turboprop CL-415s, he added. But the $35 million price tag, each, was simply too much for the state to spend.

Instead, the DNR is moving to a smaller, less-expensive airplane called a Fire Boss — a single-engine turboprop that can carry up to 800 gallons of water per run, about half the CL-215 capacity. The DNR will have two Fire Boss planes on wheels and four on floats stationed in Bemidji, Hibbing and Brainerd, and other locations as needed, Wannarka said.

The DNR will lease all six of the planes during the peak fire season — late March through June — from Appleton, Minn.-based Aero Spray, which will provide support, maintenance and pilots as well as the plane.

The Fire Boss, built by Texas-based Air Tractor Inc., originally was designed as a crop-duster. But the powerful plane has been modified to become a workhorse of the forest fire suppression effort worldwide.

St. Paul-based Wipaire Inc. makes the floats that make the plane so good for fighting Minnesota fires. Virtually any lake becomes a resupplying base for fast-turnaround times between water drops.

“We’re proud to see the state changing over to the Fire Boss. … It’s going to be a great fit for them,’’ said Charlie Wiplinger, president of Wipaire. “Most of our product has gone to Canada and Europe. It’s good to see it here at home now.”

The DNR also will have access to smaller airplanes and helicopters as well as help from the Minnesota National Guard’s Blackhawk helicopters and the national air force of federal firefighting airplanes — if and when they are available.

But Wannarka acknowledged that the gaudy-yellow, rumbling-loud CL-215s have become beloved by wildland firefighters in Minnesota in the past 14 years because they were so good at what they did.

“There are some things they did that we simply can’t reproduce, like their ability to get so much water so fast on a fire and keep doing it. They could just flat out kill a fire,’’ Wannarka said. “For me, and I’m kind of a World War II aviation buff, I’m going to miss the sound of those big engines. What a great sound.”

The DNR took delivery of the two twin-engine CL-215’s in April 2001 for a combined $6 million, part of the joint effort with federal and local agencies to prepare for the increased risk of major wildfires after the July 4, 1999, “blowdown’’ that leveled millions of trees across Northeastern Minnesota.

Those downed trees indeed did become extra fuel for several major wildfires during the past decade, including some of the largest fires of the past century. And the CL-215’s were often the first and largest line of defense, becoming a familiar site across northern Minnesota.

The DNR decided to purchase the planes outright to make sure they always were available when needed. Until then, the state was at the mercy of the national wildfire cooperative that would allocate large firefighting planes based on their availability and need.

Supporters of the CL-215’s said they have been worth every penny, and then some. Over the past 14 years, the two CL-215s have flown hundreds of sorties in Minnesota, and on loan to other states and provinces, and are credited with dozens of saves — not just huge swaths of forest but also homes, cabins and lodges.

On May 17, 2012, the residents of Ely got a firsthand look at how good the CL-215s were when the big planes joined other forces to turn back a raging forest fire that was moving toward the city.

On a hot afternoon in August, 2005, the two Minnesota water bombers (with help from a third CL-215 on loan from North Carolina) were credited with stopping the intense Alpine Lake fire that threatened dozens of cabins, homes and lodges along the Gunflint Trail near Saganaga Lake.

The fire was too wild for any ground crews to enter the battle. And helicopters simply couldn’t carry enough water to do much good. It was up to the CL-215’s to battle the blaze on their own.

The Cook County sheriff was just minutes away from ordering an evacuation. But after a continuous, hours-long deluge of water — more than a quarter-million gallons scooped out of Seagull Lake in one day — pilots radioed to the fire command that they thought they could hold the fire at bay. And they did.

The CL-215s also were used extensively in the 2007 Ham Lake fire and the 2011 Pagami Creek fire, the state’s largest in the past 80 years.

The CL-215s, which have been based in Hibbing during Minnesota wildfire months, are in Kingman, Ariz., which is where they must be picked up by their new owners.

Anyone interested in bidding on the planes can go to minnbid.org.