Known as the world's largest firefighting tanker, the plane can dump up to 19,200 gallons of water per mission

By Claudia Harmata and Diane Herbst
August 26, 2019 02:15 PM
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As fires continue to burn the Amazon rainforest at a record rate, Colorado-based Global SuperTanker sent its Boeing 747-400 firefighting plane to Bolivia on Thursday to aid in firefighting missions.

The company’s CEO, Dan Reese, tells PEOPLE that the plane — in addition to 14 crew members — arrived in the South American country early Thursday morning and began combating the fires on Friday.

Reese says that he plans to bring a 15th crew member out, and that the plane and its crew plan to stay and help for at least two weeks, after which they can stay longer if the country needs.

On Sunday, the SuperTanker successfully completed four missions, per a video shared on their Twitter.

Reese confirms that they have completed a total of 11 missions since arriving in Bolivia. However, he thinks it’s going to take an act of nature to end the devastation.

“In all honesty, I think it’s going to take rain,” he says. “We are going to do our part to help them get the fires they can, where they can get people, but as extensive as these fires are across this continent, it’s unfathomable to imagine these fires.”

Global SuperTanker’s Boeing 747-400 firefighting plane in Bolivia
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Last week, the B747-400 SuperTanker was requested by Bolivian President Evo Morales, who hoped that the plane could help the firefighting efforts in Bolivia’s Chiquitania region, according to CNN.

Known as the world’s largest firefighting tanker, the B747-400 can dump up to 19,200 gallons of water per mission, according to the company’s site.

“When we were flying from 38,000 feet, it was just unbelievable [seeing] the scene, the numbers of fires and size from that altitude across the country,” Reese tells PEOPLE. “There is a lot of fire. My guess is that we were looking at the fire in other countries as well.”

“Our missions have been down on the Paraguay-Brazilian border, so it’s kind of across the country and those distances from the airport,” he adds. “We are working out of the airbase [and working] from 130 miles to 360 miles.”

Morales shared a video of the SuperTanker during a mission on Saturday, thanking everyone who has helped in the efforts to combat the fires.

“The Supertanker and our helicopters work to put out the fire,” he wrote. “I appreciate the efforts of so many compatriots, men and women, who work on this hard task. We face this battle against the fire together.”

The Amazon, the world’s largest tropical forest, spans eight countries, including Bolivia, with nearly 60 percent of the forest in Brazil, according to Reuters. It has been engulfed in flames for a record number of weeks.

The onslaught of fire is threatening wildlife and Earth’s oxygen in a disaster that activists say could drive further climate change. Often referred to as “the planet’s lungs,” the Amazon produces 20 percent of Earth’s oxygen and is a key factor in combating climate change.

According to CNN and Reuters, both citing Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), there have been 72,843 fires in Brazil this year (with more than half in its Amazon region), and satellite images have spotted 9,507 new forest fires in the county — mostly in the Amazon basin — since Thursday.

Fires in Brazil
Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace Brazil HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Several environmentalists have said cattle ranchers and farmers intentionally set the fires to clear the land for their own use.

“These forests are not burned by accident — they are made to clear land for cattle grazing and soy production,” Daniel Brindis, head of the forest campaign for Greenpeace, previously told PEOPLE. “The companies who profit off of these commodities are based in the U.S. We encourage consumers to demand companies not destroy the forests. There is enough land out there.”

RELATED VIDEO: Amazon Rainforest Fires Threaten Climate Change Efforts — What’s at Stake for the Planet

INPE researchers have made similar statements.

“There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average,” INPE researcher Alberto Setzer said, according to Reuters. “The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident.”