Aerial Firefighters Helping To Contain Twin California Coastal Fires

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.

Aerial Firefighters Launch Rapid Response To Widespread Western Fires

The nation’s aerial firefighting industry is in a rapid response mode, as the explosive start-up of this year’s wildland fire season continues to scorch much of the Western US.

“The large number of wildland fires this early in the Western states is almost unprecedented,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).  “In some cases, aerial firefighters are deploying more flight crews and field support staff than usual, particularly this early.”

As of June 23, there were 19 incidents classified as active “large fires” occurring in the US, mostly in the western states, according to statistics from the US Forest Service (USFS).  The agency defines a large fire or incident as a wildfire of 100 acres or more impacting a forest or “timber area,” or a wildfire of 300 acres or more occurring in grass or sage.  Currently, Arizona and California are the major hot spots, with five and four major fires, respectively.

“For the first time in our company’s history, all 12 of our tankers—under USFS or California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) exclusive use contracts—are in the field,” reported Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer for Missoula, Montana-headquartered Neptune Aviation Services.  “We sent five of our BAe 146 tankers to the Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County, California, on the day it started, with operations out of a USFS tanker base at Santa Maria.  In addition, our sixth contracted BAe 146 operated out of four different tanker bases in Arizona and New Mexico on fires in those states within a week.”

Snyder added that two of the company’s six P2V Neptunes are currently working on fires in New Mexico, out of Albuquerque, while the remaining four are flying on fires from bases in Cedar City, Utah;  Broomfield, Colorado; and Rapid City, South Dakota.  The BAe 146 and P2V tankers are each supported by a captain, first officer, and a maintenance staff of two.  An additional P2V and BAe 146, in maintenance in Missoula, and will be ready to replace any tankers as they return for maintenance.

Helimax Aviation is also experiencing heavy demand for aerial firefighting services, according to Larry Kelley, the company’s Director of Fire Operations in Boise, Idaho.  “Within the past three weeks, we have dispatched eight helicopters–six medium-size Bell 205A-1++s and a Bell 212 HP–to major fires throughout the West,” Kelley noted.  The helicopters, which are operating out of bases in Utah, Oregon, California and Idaho, are equipped with 270, or 340 gallon Bambi buckets for water dropping.  Each is supported in the field by a pilot, mechanic, and fuel truck driver.

Two of Helimax Aviation’s heavy lift CH-47D Chinooks are also at work, with one operating on a fire outside of Tucson Arizona , and another based  at La Grande, Oregon was dispatched to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.  Those helicopters, said Kelley, are equipped with 2,000 gallon Bambi buckets for water dropping, and each is supported by a pilot, copilot, flight engineer, five mechanics and a fuel truck driver.  Kelley added that all eight helicopters are flying under USFS exclusive use contracts.

           Four of Columbia Helicopters’ aircraft are also engaged on multiple fires throughout the West.  Jeremy Cameron, the Portland, Oregon-based company’s Command Pilot/Fire Operations Manager, reported they include two CH-47Ds, equipped with newly certified Simplex Aerospace 2,800 gallon internal tanks.  One is assigned to the Cedar Fire near Show Low, Arizona, and the other at the Beaver Creek fire near Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

“The Simplex Aerospace tanks are removable, allowing crews to switch to conventional water buckets, if requested by the Forest Service,” Cameron explained, adding that Columbia Helicopters is preparing to release an additional CH-47D as the fire season progresses.

Along with the CH-47Ds, a Columbia Model 234, and a Columbia Vertol 107 II—each equipped with external buckets–are respectively working on the North Fire, southwest of Socorro, New Mexico, and the Short Fire, northwest of Gillette, Wyoming.  All are operating under USFS exclusive use contracts.  Approximately 35 Columbia Helicopters employees are actively supporting those aircraft in the field, with the number slated to increase with the deployment of an additional helicopter to Hamilton, Montana, in July.

Robin Rogers Vice-President of Fresno, California based Rogers Helicopters reported that the company is currently supplying command and control aircraft in support of aerial firefighting.  “Two of our Rockwell 690 turbo Commander twin turboprops have been working in that role for the past 60 days throughout California, Arizona and New Mexico, under USFS exclusive use contracts,” he explained.  “We also have a Bell 212 that has been moving around central California, for fire (support) operations, for the last three weeks,” explained Rogers.  “Two additional Bell 212s, and a Eurocopter B2 AStar are in a standby mode under USFS and CalFire call when needed contracts.”

Timberline Helicopters is preparing its two Kaman K-1200 K-Max heavy lift helicopters to commence operations under USFS exclusive use contracts, starting July 15. The helicopters will be based in Weed and Placerville, California, for 90 days each, according to Travis Storro, Chief Operating Officer of the Sandpoint, Idaho, based company. The helicopters will engage in aerial firefighting with 660 gallon Powerfill Bambi buckets, and if required, haul supplies to fire fighters on the ground, using sling loads.

“We are upgrading audio and radio communication systems, and replacing any components with low time remaining, in order to avoid days of down time during the contract period, he said.”

Storro also pointed out that the company received restricted category certification to operate one of its newly-acquired Black Hawk helicopters for aerial firefighting, under call when needed contracts with California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. “As with the K-Max, the Black Hawk will be involved with bucket work and transporting supplies in support of USFS ground crews.”

Columbia Helicopters, Helimax, Neptune Aviation Services, Rogers Helicopters, and Timberline Helicopters are members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighters before various government agencies directly involved with wildland management and fire protection.