Aerial Firefighters Meeting California Fire Emergency, Praise Fire Protection Agencies

The private aerial firefighting industry is engaging in an ongoing battle to contain some of the two-dozen wildfires currently burning throughout California, including the largest, most destructive Rocky Fire, which, as of August 5, has burned over 68,300 acres of Lake, Yolo, and Colusa Counties near Clear Lake.

At the same time, the operators have given the US Forest Service (USFS) and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) high marks for their efforts to coordinate the deployment of aerial assets throughout the state during what is shaping up to be one of the worst fire seasons in the state’s history.  In fact, according to CAL FIRE statistics, between January 1, and August 1, 2015, 100,000 acres had been consumed by 4,201 California wildfires—twice the average acreage during the previous five year period–prompting California Governor Jerry Brown, to declare a state of emergency.

“The USFS and CAL FIRE are doing their very best to coordinate and manage the deployment of aerial assets, which are stretched,” said Robin Rogers, Vice-President of Fresno-based Rogers Helicopters.  “It’s business as usual—but there has been a lot of business.  We pack up and go to wherever the firefighting agencies need us.”

Rogers Helicopters has had a Bell 212 helicopter operating on the Rocky Fire under a call when needed (CWN) contract with CAL FIRE since the fire commenced.  The helicopter, Rogers explained, is engaged in water drops as well as firefighting personnel transport.  Two additional Bell 212s are operating under USFS exclusive use (EU) contracts on fires in the El Dorado and Tahoe National Forests, along with two fixed-wing Turbine Commanders—flown where required—for coordination of aircraft during initial attack.

“With so many fires burning, trying to deploy assets to the location with the greatest need is probably like a world-class chess game,” said Columbia Helicopters’ Public Relations Manager Dan Sweet.  “We have the greatest respect for the USFS and CAL FIRE.  It appears that both agencies are doing an exemplary job of finding a balance between working on established fires and providing Initial Attack (IA) aircraft for areas that are still likely to burn.”

The Portland, Oregon-headquartered company has had a Columbia Model 234 Chinook flying on the Rocky Fire out of Clear Lake, since July 30, under a CWN contract with CAL FIRE.  The helicopter has been flying between five and eight hours, per-day, dropping water from a 2,600-gallon SEI Bambi bucket.

Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho stated that “all agencies are working very well together,” putting available assets to their best use in order to contain the fires.  Two of the company’s CH-47D Chinooks have been working on the Rocky Fire since August 1.

“The Chinooks are each averaging about seven hours daily dropping water from 2,000 gallon external buckets,” Kelly pointed out.  “Both are flying for CAL FIRE under CWN contracts.”

Along with the Chinooks, CHI Aviation has had an S-61 under a CAL FIRE CWN contract, as well as six Bell medium helicopters under exclusive use contracts for the USFS.

According to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation, five of the Missoula, Montana-based company’s fixed wing air tankers–three P2Vs and two BAe 146s–are operating in California under USFS exclusive use contracts.  A third BAe 146, he noted, is operating under a CAL FIRE exclusive use contract.

“Two of the P2Vs, along with one of the BAe 146s flying under the USFS contract, have been dropping retardant on the Rocky Fire since the day it started,” Snyder noted.  “In fact, about half of our fleet is now working in California.  The Rocky Fire is one of six fire complexes going on in the state that we have been working over the past week.”

As Snyder explained, a “complex” is when smaller fires merge into a single large one.  He referred to the support and logistics infrastructure needed to support the tanker operations as “fairly robust.”

“We have seen no issues involving tanker base readiness.  They have been well prepared, and prepared on time,” he said.

Snyder added that coordination with both Cal Fire and the USFS during the present fire emergency has “worked very well,” given the huge number of fires burning within one state.  “It’s more normal to see numerous fires spread over a large multi-state area.  What we are seeing in California is extraordinary,” he remarked.

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Neptune Aviation, and Rogers Helicopters are members of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the interests of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before Congress, the US Forest Service, and other federal and state regulatory agencies with responsibility for natural resource protection.

Drones Put Aerial Firefighters At High Risk During Southern California Fires

 

Washington, D.C., July 23, 2015…The American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has called for severe penalties against those who fly drones, for any purpose, over areas where helicopters and air tankers are engaged in firefighting.

Drones operating in close proximity of two recent Southern California fires—the Lake Fire and the North Fire–briefly grounded some aerial firefighting operations on Friday, July 17, due to the risk of mid-air collisions with the aircraft working to suppress those fires.  The result was loss of valuable response time, which may have led to increased destruction of property.  This included the 20 vehicles trapped on the Interstate 15 freeway during the North Fire, which burned 4,250 acres in San Bernardino County.  The same fire also destroyed seven homes, 16 outbuildings, and 44 vehicles in the nearby community of Baldy Mesa.

“The two fires presented a perfect illustration of how irresponsible use of drones in an active wildland fire environment can lead to preventable destruction of property.” said George Hill, AHSAFA’s Executive Director.  “We believe that criminal charges should be pressed–and maximum penalties imposed–against anyone who interferes with aerial firefighting operations in any fashion.  This includes the deployment of drones for hobby interests or news gathering.  At the very least, it is time for the federal government and local law enforcement agencies to recognize the danger which drones pose to firefighting aircraft and pilots in the event of a wild land fire and make some attempt to regulate their use.”

Among those directly impacted by the drones was a CH-47D helicopter, owned by CHI Aviation, and working the Lake Fire.

“When our pilot, along with an air attack pilot, could not locate a previously spotted drone very close to the (water) dip site, they elected to abort the mission and our helicopter returned to base,” said Larry Kelley, CHI Aviation’s Director of Fire Operations.  “That shut down operations on this fire for several hours until everyone was certain the drone was gone.”

Drones, Kelley explained, are often equipped with cameras for the sole purpose of capturing video images, which the owner could post on YouTube or sell to media outlets.  “The biggest danger drones present is a midair collision, he noted.  “If a drone were to impact the aircraft near an engine inlet, it could destroy the engine.  An aircraft carrying 16,000 pounds of water on a routine water bucket mission could possibly crash before the pilot could jettison the water and get the aircraft back into single engine performance limitations.”

Kelley added that if a drone struck a main rotor blade, the results would also be catastrophic.  “That is why the unauthorized penetration of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR’s)–or restricted airspace–by drones is something the FAA needs to really get a grip on.  My suggestion would be to place an extremely hefty fine on the violators.”

Other aerial firefighting operators expressed similar views.  Accord to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, “uncoordinated drone operations over a fire environment” present significant risks to aerial firefighters and their aircraft.

“The damage that even a small drone could cause in a midair collision could mean loss of the aircraft, and the lives of the aircrew, depending on where the aircraft is hit,” he stressed.  “Due to the safety concerns of uncoordinated drones, fire agencies will have to take necessary precautions, which could significantly impact the timeliness of aerial resources deployment on the fire.”  Neptune Aviation had a BAe 146, and a P2V Neptune tanker on the North Fire, but both aircraft went on duty after the drone issue was resolved.

Dan Sweet, Public Relations Manager for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon believes that drone operators “are acting carelessly and selfishly,” putting their interests above that of the public.  “No video or photo is worth the lives of a flight crew, the lives of firefighters on the ground, or additional property damaged because aircraft are forced to stop attacking the fire,” he remarked.

Along this line, Drew Njirich, owner of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, points out that there is “no liability or risk to drone operators,” and, currently, “no way to come back to them,” if they cause an accident.  “You can buy (drones) on Amazon, and they are not registered to any person or authority,” he explained.  “Until drone operators have a sense of responsibility, it’s only a matter of time before they kill someone.”

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before Congress, the US Forest Service, and other agencies tasked with responsibility for federal wild land and natural resources protection.