Aerial Firefighters See Longer Than Normal Florida Fire Season

Washington, D.C., May 24, 2017….Aerial firefighting companies could be in for longer deployments in Florida than in previous years, due to widespread fire events extending from the state’s northern border to its central and southern regions.
As the most notable case, two operators continue to have aircraft positioned within close proximity of the West Mims Fire, which has burned over 152,000 acres in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the Georgia/Florida line. The fire, which is attributed to a lightning strike, is just 40 percent contained, and continues to smolder and spread.
“Neptune Aviation Services has been operating in Florida, on a continuous basis, since February of this year,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana-based fixed wing tanker operator. “We started operations on the West Mims fire when it broke out on April 6. At the time, in fact, we were the only provider of large, fixed wing tankers operating in Florida.”
Snyder reported that, at the height of the activity on the West Mims fire, four of the company’s modern BAe 146 tankers were flying out of Lake City, Florida–about a 15 minute flight from the fire. “Over a five-day period in mid-May, each tanker was averaging 10-14 retardant dropping missions—per day,” he remarked.
With a slowing of action on the West Mims fire because of recent rains, Neptune, at the direction of the US Forest Service, has moved two of the tankers from Lake City to Punta Gorda, located on Florida’s southwest coast. This, explained Snyder, was done to preposition the aircraft closer to the state’s southern and central fires, in case they are needed. The tankers, which are operating under USFS exclusive use contracts, are each supported by two pilots, and two mechanics.
“This is one of the longest—if not the longest—uninterrupted deployment periods for our tankers in Florida in our company’s history,” Snyder added. “We are prepared to keep them there for as long as they are needed.”
Columbia Helicopters is also actively involved with firefighting in Florida. As Keith Saylor, Director, Commercial Operations for the Portland, Oregon based company explained, two of Columbia’s former military CH-47D, twin rotor helicopters are now positioned at Lake City. “We had one positioned there in April, and that was joined by the second one, in May,” he reported.
Both helicopters have been modified with a 2,800 gallon capacity internal tank for water dropping, and each is operating under a USFS exclusive use contract, and supported by two pilots and eight ground crew personnel, which includes mechanics and vehicle drivers.
“We have actually been working on a number of fires in the vicinity of the Florida-Georgia border,” Saylor explained. “But as of late, our work has concentrated more on the West Mims fire, which is starting to wind down—at least with regard to the heavy activity we had been seeing. We continue to support the firefighters on the West Mims fire, as needed, but we are also standing by to provide initial attack services on any new fires that might occur, not only in Florida, but throughout the USFS southern region, if assigned.”
“Climate change and dry weather patterns are increasing the length of fire seasons, not only in Florida, but throughout the country,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “Privately owned and operated aerial firefighting companies are continuing to demonstrate their capability to react to the new realities of longer, more destructive fire seasons, no matter where and for how long.”
Columbia Helicopters and Neptune Aviation Services are both members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the interests of the privately owned and operated aerial firefighting industry before the federal government agencies tasked with overseeing wildland management and natural resource protection.

Modern Firefighting Aircraft At Work On Widespread Florida Fires

Washington, DC, MAY 1, 2017 …Aerial firefighters have deployed modern fixed wing tankers and helicopters to Florida during what has been called the state’s worst fire season since 2011.
Since January, wildfires have destroyed over 126,000 acres, from the Georgia border to south Florida, prompting Governor Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency on April 11. The excessive number of fires has been attributed to hotter and drier than normal conditions.
“Although it’s not unusual for us to be working on fires in Florida at this time of year, we have seen an early kickoff to their fire season, which usually begins in March,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer for Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana.
Neptune Aviation Services, Snyder noted, started ramping up its air tanker operations in Florida in February when it positioned one of its newly modified BAe 146 jets to a US Forest Service (USFS) tanker base at Lake City, under an optional use provision of its USFS exclusive use contract. Since then, two additional BAe 146 tankers—including one which arrived on April 16—have been working out of Lake City. All three tankers are now operating under current, standard exclusive use contracts, and are staffed with two pilots, and two field maintenance staff–per aircraft.
At this time, the focus of the tankers has been on the “West Mims Fire” in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on the George-Florida border, and the “Cowbell Fire” burning in the Big Cypress National Preserve, some 45 miles of Miami, he explained.
“We have been averaging four to five retardant-dropping missions, per day, per aircraft, over the past week,” Snyder reported. “Those aircraft will remain in Florida for as long as needed. In fact, we are prepared to bring in additional tankers, if required.”
Keith Saylor, Director of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters confirmed that the Portland, Oregon-based company has been operating a single CH47-D Chinook helicopter, under a USFS Exclusive Use contract, in Florida since April 1st, when it was dispatched from McKinney, Texas to Tallahassee. The helicopter, he pointed out, was modified by Columbia with a 2,800 gallon capacity internal tank for water or retardant.
“This is the first time we have deployed a tank-equipped helicopter to Florida,” Saylor said. “In prior years, our helicopter operations–there, and other places–have used external buckets. The internal tank has proven to be very successful and efficient at putting out fires, especially in the early stages.”
After initial operations out of Tallahassee, the helicopter was repositioned to the USFS Smokey helibase on April 9, where it is currently in an initial attack standby mode, with a staff of two pilots and eight mechanics. The Smokey helibase, located within the Ocala National Forest, is also in the middle of a restricted area—specifically, a bombing range primarily run by the US Navy. The helicopter’s primary mission, Saylor explained, is to support the range in case any bombs start a fire, along with any other fire activity in the local area.
“We expect the helicopter to remain at Smokey, but we can relocate it at any time according to the USFS’s needs,” Saylor noted. “The fire danger is very high in central Florida. It is very dry here, with little to no precipitation forecast in the coming week.”
Columbia Helicopters and Neptune Aviation Services are members of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the interests of the privately owned and operated aerial firefighting companies before the US Forest Service and other federal agencies with regulatory oversight of wildland management and fire protection.