Aerial Firefighters Well Prepared For Coming Fire Season

While the fire season throughout much of the US does not begin until early spring, the private aerial firefighting industry is—even now–battle-ready for what could be another tough year, thanks to ongoing dry conditions in the Western states.

“I think there is going to be far more fire activity in 2015, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, which is a lot drier than it was last year at this time,” said Drew Njirich, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California. “Although California will also be an area of focus, every part of the west, including Idaho and Montana, could be severely impacted by this year’s fire season.”

Intermountain Helicopter’s single Bell 212 medium helicopter, which is under an Exclusive Use (EU) contract with the US Forest Service (USFS) for the next three years, underwent maintenance and modification work during the winter months to assure its availability for its multi-mission work in support of ground-based fire firefighters, such as ferrying of personnel and supplies to the fire lines. As an additional safety measure for the upcoming fire season, the company installed a Garmin GDL-69 satellite link weather system in order to monitor weather conditions in areas where there is no cellphone coverage.   “Being linked to a satellite system means that we can monitor the weather wherever we are, in real time,” Njirich explained. “When it comes to safety, we try to stay ahead of the game.”

At Rogers Helicopters, winter maintenance is nearing completion. “We always prepare for a high level of firefighting, even if it turns out that the fire season is not as severe as those in the past,” said Robin Rogers, Vice-President of the Fresno, California-based company.

Two of the company’s Bell 212s are being readied for operation under USFS EU contracts, with an additional three Bell 212s committed to EU contracts with the State Of Alaska Department Of Forestry.

“Another Bell 212, and a Eurocopter AS 350B2 A-Star will be under USFS Call When Needed (CWN) contracts,” Rogers noted. “In addition, we have two fixed wing Rockwell 690A twin turboprop Commanders that will be operated in air traffic management roles during aerial firefighting for the USFS.”

Those aircraft will be manned by a cadre of 14 pilots, four of whom will be assigned to the Commanders. All of the pilots are currently undergoing recurrent training, said Rogers, who explained that all of the company’s fixed wing and helicopter training is carried out in house.

Keith Saylor, Director Of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, reported that the operator has just submitted a proposal to make 19 helicopters available under state and federal CWN contracts. Those aircraft will include former US Army CH47D helicopters, acquired by Columbia last year, as well as Columbia Model 107s and Model 234s. At the same time, three of the company’s Model 107s and one Model 234 will be commencing the final year of a four year USFS EU contract beginning in May.

“We put our aircraft through some contractually mandated avionics changes, along with our routine winter fleet maintenance,” Saylor pointed out. “We also carried out initial training of the pilots we newly hired, along with recurrent training for those already on staff.” Columbia Helicopters, he added, is anticipating a “moderate to severe” fire season for the Pacific Northwest.

Neptune Aviation Services, the largest operator of fixed wing aerial tankers, expects to wrap up all heavy maintenance in May, according to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company. “Since last fall, we will have invested nearly 18,000 man-hours to prepare our aircraft for the 2015 fire season, which is about average for each year,” he said.

Currently, Neptune Aviation Services has seven aircraft under EU contracts with the USFS for 2015, which includes six P2V Neptunes and one BAe146 jet. However, Snyder stressed that other aircraft are available as needed. In fact, by the end of this year, the operator expects to have a fleet of seven BAe146 jets reconfigured for aerial firefighting, in addition to its legacy fleet of P2Vs.

“We began flight crew training on both the Neptunes and BAe146s starting in January of this year,” Snyder reported. “That includes ground school, simulator, in-aircraft training; as well as mission specific training.” The BAe146 simulator training, he explained, is conducted in Australia and in the United Kingdom. “We use a generic simulator for the P2V instrument training,” said Snyder.

Although he did not want to speculate about the coming fire season, Snyder did point out that the company has received inquiries from the USFS about deploying some of the contracted aircraft early due to concerns about the fire potential in California. The first aircraft, in fact, has been mission ready since March 5, with deployment of the remaining five by May 30.

Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are members of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry.

Feds Seen As Coming Competition To Private Aerial Firefighters

The nation’s privately operated aerial firefighting industry is growing increasingly concerned about greater federal government involvement in wildland fire suppression through deployment of Air National Guard assets, and a recent agreement by the US Forest Service (USFS) to acquire seven former US Coast Guard C-130s for air tanker missions.

In a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) last November in Boise, Idaho, Tom Eversole, the industry trade group’s Executive Director, said that government competition with private enterprise topped the list of subjects discussed with the USFS and Congressional staff over the past year.  “We have also spent time expressing our concerns about the USFS’s large air tanker contracting procedures, which are constantly changing and open to protest,” he stated.

The USFS, reported Eversole, has expressed a need for 24 to 28 additional large air tankers which now would be partially filled by the seven surplus Coast Guard C-130s. This reduces the number of aircraft commercial operators would provide, aircraft already being configured for firefighting at considerable costs to the companies. While the current plan is for the C-130 aircraft to be government-owned, but contractor operated, Eversole sees a competitive threat to the private aerial firefighting industry.  “Private companies that own and operate their own equipment would be at competitive disadvantage when bidding against contractors flying government-owned tankers, since those companies would not have to absorb acquisition costs,” he explained.  “We will continue to work with the USFS in 2015 to work out an equitable solution to the C-130 issue, and other issues regarding the future airtanker program.”

As Eversole noted, the private aerial firefighting industry, once again, proved its effectiveness during another long, and challenging fire season, particularly in the drought-impacted Western United States.  For example, Neptune Aviation Services, the Missoula, Montana-based large airtanker fleet operator, deployed as many as 10 aircraft, including its six P2V Neptunes, and four converted BAe 146 airliners, starting last January.

“Because of the early start to the fire season in California, we deployed those aircraft at least two months earlier than we normally do,” said Dan Snyder, the company’s Chief Operating Officer.  “California, Oregon and Washington had a particularly above average fire season.”  Neptune was also actively engaged on fires in New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Idaho and Utah.

Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, reported that the operator added three Army surplus CH-47D Chinooks to its fleet late in the fire season.  “One of the Chinooks is currently stationed in Sacramento, and carded by the USFS and CalFire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection).  “Our goal for 2015 is to be able to provide these aircraft to any local, state, or federal agency that has a need for a Type 1 aircraft for fire or disaster services,” Kelly said.  He added that CHI Aviation’s three Bell 205A-1++’s and one Bell 212 HP flew 946.5 hours on fires in support of our government contracts during 2014.

Other helicopter operators reported heavy use of their assets in wildland firefighting missions.  Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters flew in excess of 1,100 flight hours, with four Vertol 107-IIs, and one Model 234 Chinook on fires in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Arizona and New Mexico.

A Bell 212, operated by Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, flew some 220 hours last year on a mix of firefighting missions, including water dropping, rappelling of fire fighters during initial attack phase, and ferrying of supplies—mostly in Washington and Oregon.  In preparation for 2015, the helicopter is being upgraded with a new Garmin 625 primary display system, and satellite weather radar, according to company president Drew Njirich.  “We are upgrading the avionics to make the helicopter more user-friendly and attractive to our contract customer,” he said.

Robin Rogers, Vice-President of Rogers Helicopters in Fresno, California, reported that they deployed a fleet consisting of two Bell 212HP, three Bell 212s, and two fixed wing Commander 690 twin turboprops—used in air tactical operations in support of firefighting—flew a combined total of nearly 1,100 hours, under USFS Exclusive Use contracts in Oregon, and California, and Alaska—for the Alaska Division of Forestry.  Another Bell 212, flew 275 hours under USFS Call When Needed contracts in Oregon and California.  All of the helicopters flew a variety of missions including water dropping, cargo and passenger transport missions.

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C. headquartered trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry.