Fixed wing air tanker and helicopter operators are helping firefighters get the upper hand on a massive fire which has been burning for the past month in the Klamath National Forest along the California-Oregon border. Known as the Happy Camp Complex fire, the lightning-sparked conflagration has torched nearly 100,000 acres and is currently just 30 percent contained.
“Of our 10 tankers working right now throughout California and Oregon, seven are in southern Oregon or northern California,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services. “All seven have been deployed at different times on the Happy Camp Complex fire throughout the past month. In fact, we have had as many as five tankers working on that fire simultaneously since it started in mid-August.”
The tanker fleet, Snyder reported, is a combination of BAe 146 regional airliners, recently modified as aerial tankers, and the company’s legacy P2V Neptunes. Those operating on the Happy Camp Complex fire have been flying out of Medford, Oregon. Each aircraft is supported by two flight crew members, and two mechanics. The fixed wing tankers are operated under US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contracts.
On September 5, CHI Aviation moved a Bell 205 helicopter, along with a pilot, mechanic and fuel truck driver, to the Happy Camp Complex fire, according to Larry Kelley, the company’s Boise, Idaho-based Director of Fire Operations. The Bell 205 had been at Trinity, California, from which it had been deployed on fires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest since June. Kelley said that two additional helicopters, a Bell 205 at Salmon, Idaho, and a Bell 212 at Hood River, Oregon, are available for dispatch to the fire, if needed by the USFS. All three are under exclusive use contracts.
“The helicopter is being tasked with whatever the Forest Service requires it to do, for as long as it’s needed,” said Kelley. “That includes water drops, and transportation of firefighters and supplies.”
Also, Portland, Oregon-headquartered Columbia Helicopters has assigned a twin rotor Vertol 107 to the Happy Camp Complex fire according to Todd Petersen, Vice-President, Marketing. Accompanied by three pilots, three mechanics and a fuel truck driver, the helicopter has been dropping water on the fire for the past two weeks on an exclusive use contract.
Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) called the Happy Camp Complex fire another example of a trend toward wildland fires which are not only more destructive but of longer duration. “I think fires of this magnitude are going to become more the rule than the exception, which is why we need to assure a robust, private aerial firefighting industry going forward—especially as Congress continues to debate adequate funding for wildland fire protection.”
CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the aerial firefighting industry.