The 14 single-engine AT-802 firefighting aircraft stationed around Arizona are playing a huge role in delaying what could be one of the state's worst fire seasons.
Last week, a pair of Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) stationed at Payson airport were called on to fight the Cane Fire in the rugged Four Peaks area, said Tonto National Forest Fire Information Officer Rick Barton.
The SEATs are leased from M&M Airservice in Texas and piloted by James Daniell and Fred Worden.
Fred Mascher, Arizona State Land Department single-engine air-tanker manager, said SEATs were placed at strategic locations around the state a month earlier than last fire season because the potential for wildfire is catastrophic this year.
The single-engine aircraft got a foot in the firefighting door two years ago when the Forest Service and Department of Interior terminated contracts for 33 large air tankers due to concerns over their airworthiness, structural problems and public safety.
Most of those aircraft were converted military aircraft.
Conversely, Air Tractor officials claim SEATs are the only aircraft in America specifically designed for fighting and controlling wildfires.
SEATS can carry up to 800 gallons of fire retardant, foam or water and have the mobility to maneuver in high altitudes and mountainous terrain. Also, the 1,200 horsepower engine allows pilots to fly 160 mph over red-hot fire zones.
The AT-802s were particularly effective in fighting the Cane Fire because the rugged terrain limited the effectiveness of ground crews, Barton said.
The aircraft's firefighting capabilities has drawn praise from some of the Department of the Interior's top brass, including aviation management specialist Mark Bickham.
"The AT-802 has proven to be a major asset in our first strike strategy along with other contracted SEATs aircraft," he said.
Tonto District Ranger Ed Armenta calls the planes "a good resource, another tool in our firefighting arsenal."
Last year, the planes were instrumental in halting the Cave Creek wildfire which charred almost 250,000 acres and claimed 11 homes.
The two SEATS stationed at the Payson Airport will remain there until the Rim Country receives enough precipitation to reduce fire danger.