The last remaining operational Martin Mars water bomber is "coming out of retirement" to fight the wildfires burning up B.C. this summer, Forests Minster Steve Thomson has confirmed.
About 195 fires are currently burning across the province, with dozens more fires popping up each day.
"Given the extraordinary fire situation this year, and recognizing that public safety is paramount, we need to look at every possible tool in our toolbox," said Thomson in a statement issued on Wednesday.
The ministry confirmed earlier this week it was in negotiations to use the aging air tanker, but the deal was not confirmed publicly until yesterday
"Today, I'm pleased to announce that we're entering into a one-month agreement to use the Martin Mars air tanker."
Since the Martin Mars has not been used to fight forest fires in two years, the crew will first spend a couple of days ensuring that it is safe to fly and the pilots are certified, before it returns to service this weekend.
The air tanker will be stationed at its regular base at Sproat Lake, near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island.
Retired in 2013
Between 2007 and 2013 the B.C. government had a contract with Coulson to use the lumbering plane to fight forest fires.
But in 2013 the province ended its contract with the Coulson Group to use the air tanker, opting to move to smaller aircraft more suitable to B.C.'s mountain terrain.
The massive air tanker was built as a transport plane for the U.S. Navy in 1946, and is the largest fixed-wing water bomber in the world, with a capacity of more than 27,000 litres.
Originally four of the planes were bought to fight forest fires in B.C., but only one remains operational. One was destroyed in a crash, another in a storm and a third, which has not flown in nearly a decade, is being put in an aviation museum in Florida.
But due to its size, the Martin Mars can only land on and scoop up water from about 113 water bodies in B.C., as opposed to the 1,700 water bodies that other smaller amphibious scoopers can access, Thomson noted.
"The Mars is not suitable for steep terrain. We will only use it in situations where it is safe to do so," he said.
It also can't drop flame retardant, and fire crews often have to stop work on fires because of large drop pattern, according to the ministry website.
The single Martin Mars aircraft also costs $8,400 more per hour to operate than the combined cost of all four of the smaller Fire Boss amphibious air tankers currently under contract with the government.
More than 100 helicopters are also helping to fight wildfires throughout B.C.
In addition, the B.C. Wildfire Service also has the following 31 aircraft available:
- 16 air tankers,
- 8 bird dogs,
- 6 medium-lift helicopters
- 1 light-lift helicopter on long-term contract.