Aerial firefighters in the West are working to contain two massive wildfires continuing to burn near the Angeles National Forest near Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County; and along California’s scenic Central Coast north of Big Sur. To date, the two fires, combined, have destroyed nearly 62,000 acres, prompting evacuations and a disaster declaration by California’s governor.
Combating the two huge blazes has involved fixed wing air tankers, and helicopters. Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services reported that the company currently has two aircraft—a P2V Neptune, and a BAe 146–operating on the Sand Fire, as the one in Los Angeles County has been designated. The two aircraft, which are operating under US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contracts, were deployed at the initial stage of the fire, more than a week ago, and are flying out of San Bernardino, California, dropping retardant.
Snyder explained that the P2V was redirected to the Sand Fire following initial deployment on the Soberanes Fire, as the one on the Central Coast is called. It was replaced there by a BAe 146, which Neptune Aviation Services is operating under an exclusive use contract from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). That aircraft, which is based in Paso Robles, has been taking on retardant at Hollister, and been on the fire since the outset. The P2V and the two BAe 146s have been averaging 10-12 retardant drops daily for over a week. Each one is supported in the field by two flight crews, a crew chief, who functions as a mechanic, and a second mechanic/support vehicle driver.
“This is the first year that Neptune Aviation’s entire tanker fleet has been deployed at any given time, under USFS or State exclusive use contracts, throughout the Western US,” Snyder noted. “That includes all six of our P2Vs, and all six of our BAe 146s—one of which is under a Cal-Fire contract.”
Robin Rogers, Vice-President of Fresno-headquartered Rogers Helicopters, reported that the company has had two Bell 212HPs, and two AS 350B2 A-Star helicopters working on the Soberanes fire since July 23. All have been flying out of the nearby Carmel Valley airport, and engaged in water dropping, as well as directing helicopter activity over the fire.
“This is the first time in decades that we have had this many helicopters on a single fire,” Rogers stated. “There have been some very volatile fire incidents this year, and Cal-Fire has done an excellent job of managing them.”
According to Rogers, the fire situation in California this year has been sporadic.“ We’ve seen fires that break out, last about 10 days, and then we have 10 days to two weeks without anything serious, before they flare up again,” he said. “What we’ve been spared, so far, are fires caused by dry lightning, but if we start seeing dry lightning within the next 45 to 60 days, that will be a tipping point.”
Mike Rotonda, Aerial Firefighting Manager for Erickson, Inc. reported that an S-64E owned by the Portland, Oregon-based company has been working on the Sand Fire under a USFS call when needed contract since July 23. The heavy lift helicopter, equipped with an internal tank and a hover snorkel, has been engaged in both water and fire retardant dropping, and is supported in the field by two pilots, one crew chief, two mechanics, and two drivers of the maintenance vehicle.
“The 2016 fire season is shaping up to be very severe in Southern California, with predictions of it spreading north to the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and Montana by August,” Rotonda reported. “The Rocky Mountain states are experiencing about an average fire season for this time of year.”
“The privately operated aerial firefighters have been an essential tool for initial attack and containment of wildland fires, and the two major ones going on in California right now are another illustration,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “The companies flying on those fires have once again proven their readiness for immediate deployment, even at the initial attack level, and throughout the containment process.”
Erickson, Inc., Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the privately owned and operated aerial firefighting industry’s interests before government agencies with responsibility for wildland protection in the US.