Aerial Firefighters Deploying More Assets to Massive California/Oregon Border Fire

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.

Aerial Firefighters Note Increasing Pacific Northwest Wildfire Activity

In what appears to be a record-setting year for wildland fires in the West, aerial firefighters are battling more wildfires in the Pacific Northwest states, and deploying their aircraft and crews accordingly.

For example, CHI Aviation has spent more time on wildfires in Washington State compared to previous years, according to Larry Kelley, the operator’s Director of Fire Operations in Boise, Idaho.  In that regard, the company’s Ogden, Utah-based Bell 212 has been flying out of Wenatchee, Washington, for the past 30 days.

“We almost never got to Washington in previous years, but now we’re seeing more activity there,” Kelley noted.  “In most years, the majority of our flying was in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and Colorado.”  Currently, CHI Aviation has three Bell 205s and one Bell 212 under US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contracts, the same number as last year.

Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, also cited greater fire activity in the Pacific Northwest.  “The fire season in the Pacific Northwest began far earlier, and has been much more active to date this year, than in prior years,” he said.  “That has contributed to a greater tempo of flying, and accounted for a 10 percent increase in the number of our flight hours, although part of that is because we are currently operating 10 tankers, versus the eight we operated last year.”

Snyder pointed out that the company’s fleet now includes four  BAe 146 regional jets, modified for aerial firefighting as next generation tankers—along with six of its legacy P2Vs.  “We are now fielding more next-generation airtankers than any other operator in the US,” he noted.  “The reviews from the field about their performance have been extremely positive.”

Keith Saylor, Director of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters, Inc., in Portland, Oregon, reported that the operator currently has five aircraft engaged in the Pacific Northwest, including four Vertol 107s and one 234 Chinook.  Last year at this time, the number of helicopters deployed there was four.

“Because of the severe fire season in the Pacific Northwest, the Model 234 has been working on fires under an exclusive use contract, from Leavenworth, Washington for the past five to six weeks,” Saylor said.  “We have also assigned one of the Vertol 107s to Winthrop, Washington, where it is operating on a call-when-needed agreement.”

He explained that, to date, the number of hours flown on wildland fires has about equaled what was flown at this time in 2013, although the company is preparing for a longer period of activity.  “Last year’s fire season was very active, but it tapered off quickly by September.  While I can’t say for sure—given what we have seen so far—we don’t believe the 2014 season will drop off as quickly,” Saylor said.

Columbia, he added, hired a few additional copilots to cope with increasing demand, along with the acquisition of six Army surplus CH-47D Chinook helicopters.  “We anticipate two will be operational and possibly under wildland firefighting contracts next year.”

This year, Intermountain Helicopter of Sonora, California, began operating its Bell 212 for the first time in USFS Region 1, which encompasses the Northern Rocky Mountains and much of the Pacific Northwest.  In prior years, the helicopter was used largely in Northern California, according to Drew Njirich, President of the Sonora, California-based operator.  The helicopter, he reported has been flying from a base near Bozeman, Montana.

“Although we were on one small fire in Nevada, most of our activity has been in Montana, Oregon and Idaho because of lightning strikes,” Njirich said.  In fact, the Johnson Bar fire near Grangeville, Idaho, was the company’s most recent assignment, which concluded with the release of the helicopter on August 19.

For this fire season to date, the company has flown about 100 hours on the fires—a number which Njirich called “a very low-end estimate.”  That included initial attack missions which involved transporting firefighters, firefighting equipment, and back haul of smoke jumper gear, as well as water drops on some of the larger fires.

“There is no question that the wildland fire danger is increasing in areas of the country where the risk had historically not been as great,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).  “The privately operated aerial firefighting industry has long demonstrated that it has the resources to meet the wildland fire threat anywhere, especially we are experiencing longer, more destructive fire seasons.”

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the privately owned and operated aerial firefighting industry in the US.