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A petition to re-enlist the vintage aircraft garnered thousands of signatures.

courtesy of Coulson Aviation

Kathi Donovan cites her own life to show there's firefighting potential in the beloved Martin Mars water bombers, vintage giants so admired that thousands signed her petition to have them deployed this summer, two years after they retired.

"It shouldn't matter about age," said Ms. Donovan, a 62-year-old bartender, from her workplace Sunday. "That's how I feel about the water bomber. I can run circles around people that are 19 and 20 years old and do my job. So why can't a plane?"

Last week, the province got the message and announced a one-month contract for one of the two four-engined aircraft developed by the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, each with a wing span equal to a 747 Jumbo Jet.

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The Mars, based in the Vancouver Island community of Port Alberni, is the last available in the world to fight fires, and can dump 27,000 litres of water mixed with fire-suppressing gel.

As the province grapples with a challenging summer of wildfire – as of Sunday, there were 251 active fires – the Mars is getting an encore role, ending five decades of service in the province.

When it appeared that the Mars was going to sit idle this year and no one else would mount a petition to change the province's plans, Ms. Donovan took matters into her own hands. More than 20,000 people signed their names in the online effort earlier this month.

Now the Mars is ready for action. The Coulson Group, based in Port Alberni, has prepared the surviving Mars for service, and it was ready as of Sunday, but not launched because there was no specific mission for it.

In 2007, Coulson bought two Mars water bombers from a timber concern that had owned and used them over about 40 years.

Although the province is ready to use the water bomber again, it appears to have some reservations. In a statement, the forests ministry noted the Mars is so big it can only land in and scoop water from 113 water bodies in B.C. as opposed to 1,700 that other aircraft can access. Also, they said it isn't suitable for steep terrain.

Kevin Skrepnek, the chief fire information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service, was a bit kinder Sunday. "It's another tool in the toolkit," he told a telephone news conference.

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"The Mars is an iconic aircraft. It has been in use in this province for decades. It, quite rightly has a pretty large appreciation, a pretty large following among the people of B.C."

Despite a "somewhat limited mission profile," Mr. Skrepnek said it has uses. "In the right situation, it is an incredibly effective tool in terms of the amount of water it can drop onto a fire."

But he said it was too soon to say if the Mars might have a firefighting future. "Right now, we have nailed it down for the next month, that we will be in active use of it. Beyond that, it would be hard to say."

The Mars were built initially as bombers, then for carrying air freight. They are 35.7 metres long and have a 60.9 metre wingspan – equal to a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet.

Of four planes brought into B.C. to fight forest fires, only one – the Hawaii Mars – remains ready. A second Mars, also based in Port Alberni, is being sent to an aviation museum in Florida.

Wayne Coulson, chief executive officer of the Coulson Group, said the Mars has been deployed to fires in California, Mexico, Alberta and, of course, B.C.

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"These airplanes kill fire. That's what they do despite the perceived limitations," he said Sunday.

Port Alberni Mayor Mike Ruttan remembers a fire in a chip pile in his city. Two or three drops and it was job done.

"If they hadn't had that ability, the whole chip pile would have gone, therefore the paper mill would have gone and, therefore, the core of our economy would have gone," Mr. Ruttan said Sunday.

"I had it described to me by one person, who has been around for a long time: `When you see the water bomber fly over, it's like John Wayne coming over the hill.'"

Mr. Ruttan said Port Alberni residents are skeptical about the province's Mars reservations, noting the plane's internal technology has been upgraded. According to Mr. Coulson, the company has spent $3-million to upgrade Mars' avionics technology.

"There isn't that longterm political commitment to that plane," said Mr. Ruttan. "In order for it to be there and available to us, there needs to be a different political commitment."

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Ms. Donovan said there should be a five-year contract for the Mars so there's no delay in using it in future. "Everybody all over wants this plane."

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