When lightning struck a single tree on Okanagan Mountain in 2003, sparking a fire that incinerated the forested slope and forced thousands of people out of their homes, residents waited anxiously for the Mars water bombers.
The enormous fat-bellied aircraft stationed on Vancouver Island are the biggest water bombers in the world. In a province where forest fires can be devastating, the sight of the red-and-white behemoths has provided residents with some relief. Many were upset when the last of the planes – the Hawaii Mars – was decommissioned last fall.
Now, with hot and dry conditions igniting blazes across the province, some people want the Hawaii Mars brought back into action rather sitting uselessly in a parking lot.
“It’s disappointing that we’re bringing in air resources from other provinces … and here we have this resource not being used,” said Chris Alemany, a computer technician from Port Alberni, B.C., where the water bombers are based.
Mr. Alemany delivered a petition bearing 18,000 signatures to Premier Christy Clark’s constituency office on Thursday that calls for the province to renew its contract with the Coulson Group, which owns the water bombers.
However, the government says the Fire Boss amphibious airtankers it is using have advantages over the massive Mars machines.
For one, the Mars bombers cannot drop long-term fire retardant, which is vital for slowing a blaze’s growth while ground crews work to contain it.
And because of their size, the Mars bombers can skim from only 113 of B.C.’s bodies of water, whereas the sleeker Fire Bosses can scoop from more than 1,700.
But Wayne Coulson, the president and chief executive officer of Coulson Group, argues that the province should aim for variety in its bag of tricks.
“Because this business is really reactive, you need all different types of tools,” said Mr. Coulson, whose company bought the last two remaining Mars bombers in 2007.
“If you have the resources, why not use them? I think that’s what people are frustrated with.
“Why wouldn’t we want to give ourselves, and the firefighters on the ground, the best chance possible to put the fire out?”
Mr. Coulson said he first saw the planes in action when he was 17 and they were used to help extinguish a fire at Strathcona Provincial Park.
“The airplanes came in and put the fire out in two drops,” he recalls. “ I have always been impressed by their ability to knock out a wildfire.”
The original fleet of five Martin Mars aircraft got their start as seaplanes carrying cargo for the U.S. navy before they were retired in 1956.
A year or so later, a consortium of Canadian companies bought the planes and converted them to water bombers. They can unload 27,000 litres of water in a single run – enough to cover four acres of land.
Three of the original planes were destroyed, leaving only the Hawaii Mars and the Philippine Mars intact. TimberWest, the forest company that owned them, put them up for sale in 2007, which is when Coulson Group snatched them up.
Over the next seven years, the Hawaii Mars was dispatched to fires on contract in B.C. and California, while the Philippine Mars sat idle.
But the B.C. government says the Mars bombers are not as cost effective as the alternatives, and without generating income, keeping them air ready is too costly for Mr. Coulson.
He says he will likely sell them to a museum, or a private collector.
It appears that at 68, the bombers are headed for retirement.