The aerial firefighting industry has deployed a significant number of aircraft and support personnel to the Pacific Northwest, as wildland fires have raged throughout Oregon and Washington. The surge of activity includes extensive operations on the Carlton Complex fire, which has so far burned over 243,000 acres, and is considered Washington’s largest fire to date.
“Fires of this intensity usually do not happen in the Pacific Northwest before mid-to-late August, so we are operating there about 30 days earlier than usual,” said Ron Hooper, Chief Executive Officer of airtanker operator Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana. Hooper reported that, of the company’s 10 large aerial tankers currently under USFS exclusive use contract, five–three P2V Neptunes and two BAe 146s–have been operating on fires in Oregon and Washington over the last 13 days, from bases in Redmond, Oregon, and Moses Lake, Washington.
“Most of that activity has been on the Carlton Complex, and the Chiwaukum fires–the two largest in Washington.” He added that, so far, those aircraft have flown over 200 missions, dropped more than 500,000 gallons of fire retardant, and have averaged nine hours of duty time, per day.
Heavy lift helicopter specialist Columbia Helicopters has also responded to the sudden surge in fire activity, having deployed all portions of its fleet of aircraft currently available for firefighting. That includes a Columbia Vertol 107-II, and a Columbia Model 234 deployed respectively to the Carlton Complex, and Chiwaukum fires. Three other Columbia Vertol 107-IIs, are working on fires out of Chester, California, the Willamette National Forest at Detroit Lake, and Hood River, Oregon. According to Dan Sweet, the Portland, Oregon-based company’s Public Relations Manager, two more Vertol 107-IIs were reassigned from logging operations in Canada to firefighting missions under contract to the British Columbia provincial government.
“Columbia Helicopters has had aircraft on contract to the US Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest since May of this year,” Sweet said. “It has been a very busy fire season, although not an extraordinary one, except to say that we usually don’t see this much activity in Oregon and Washington until at least August.”
Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho, reported that the company has made four helicopters available to the US Forest Service under exclusive use contracts. Of those, three are now actively engaged on fires. One, a Bell 212 has been dropping water on the Carlton Complex fire for the past two weeks. Two other aircraft, both Bell 205s, have also been busy, with one in Northern California on the Bully Fire, and the other on a wildland fire in Garden Valley, Idaho. The helicopters have averaged four to seven hours of flight time daily.
“We also have a Bell 205 in a standby mode at Salmon, Idaho, because of the fire risk generated by a considerable amount of lightning strikes in the area. It has been a steady fire season,” Kelley remarked.
“If you make a comparison between our activity this year, and what it was at the same time last year, we are much busier,” stated Rick Livingston, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California. “Everyone we are talking with seems to be flying on these fires in the Pacific Northwest right now.”
Livingston reported that the company’s single Bell 212 is flying a variety of missions including water dropping as well as “rappelling” or transporting firefighters to the fire lines. Currently, the helicopter is based at Redmond, Oregon, flying under an exclusive use US Forest Service contract.
“Although these massive fires came much earlier than anyone anticipated, the privately operated aerial firefighting industry was ready with a quick and efficient response,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “Our members have shown, once again, they are well prepared to respond to wildland fires, regardless of the timing of fire seasons, anywhere.”
CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are all members of AHSAFA, the national trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry in Washington.