Neptune Aviation Tanker 3 in Chile

Neptune Aviation tanker 03 rests on the runway Monday in Concepcion, Chile, next to a line of water tanks in preparation for firefighting duties. The Missoula-based jet was deployed to help Chile battle hundreds of wildfires that have burned close to 1.5 million acres in the past three weeks. 

While its Montana home base braced for record-breaking snow, one of Neptune Aviation’s jet air tankers began firefighting missions in the drought-parched mountains of Chile.

“They’re using us for initial attack, and right now, their mail problem is arson fires,” Neptune Chief Executive Officer Ron Hooper said on Monday. “In the last two or three weeks, the situation was so severe their president declared a national emergency. That was just lifted this weekend. Their seasons are opposite of ours, and right now it’s like southern California during drought conditions, when the fuels are dry, there’s lots of wind and no precipitation.”

Neptune Tanker 03 departed Missoula on Friday and arrived in Concepcion, Chile, on Saturday. That’s about 200 miles south of the capital, Santiago, and north of the main fire areas. The fires have killed at least four firefighters, one air tanker pilot and numerous civilians since starting in mid-January. One fire destroyed much of the town of Santa Olga, burning 1,000 homes and forcing the evacuation of 6,000 residents.

“This is the equivalent of the fires of 1988 here,” said Missoula resident Graeme Shaw, who regularly visits Chile and advised Neptune’s crew on government and customs rules before they departed. “Yellowstone Park is 2 million acres, and they’ve burned about 1.5 million acres of Chile. The situation is so bad, that if you have matches in your pocket, you’ll be arrested on sight.”

Shaw said Chilean government officials report that arsonists may be starting fires to make insurance claims on lost crops or livestock because drought conditions have so damaged the agricultural economy there. He said Chilean news reported at least 40 people have been arrested in investigations of fire activity.

The Neptune crews will be dropping water instead of fire retardant on the Chilean fires. While the red clouds of retardant are considered more effective, Hooper said the jet will be able to fly low enough to get good use from plain water drops.

“Water disperses faster and if the fire is too hot, it just evaporates,” Hooper said. “But we’re hitting the fires when they’re still small, so we can get down low — 150 feet above the fuel. We get on the fires quickly, knock them down and let the ground forces finish the job. They’re spread thin now because of all of the fire activity.”

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While the Chilean government directs the firefighting operations, Hooper said private business owners in the country have financed the large air tanker fleet. The country has a small force of single-engine air tankers and helicopters, but no large air tankers like Neptune’s BAe-146 jets or very large air tankers like Boeing 747s and Russian-made IL-76 jets, which other foreign firefighting companies have sent to Chile.

Neptune fields nine BAe-146s, which it has brought on to replace its Korean War-era P2-V bombers. One advantage of moving to the civilian-made jets, Hooper said, was the opportunity to work in international fire situations. Federal law prohibits civilians from using military planes outside the United States, even if they are decommissioned and civilian-owned.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.