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.

Aerial Firefighters Winding Down An Active Western Wildfire Season

Washington, D.C., October 28, 2014….Members of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) have generally reported greater utilization of fixed wing and helicopter assets, as highly destructive wildland fires raged across much of the Western US this year.

“The amount of flying we have done during this year’s fire season has already exceeded what we did during the comparable 2013 period,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer for Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services.  Using figures compiled through October 7, the operator of large, fixed wing tankers had flown almost 2,100 hours, compared with 1,982 by the same date in 2013.  In terms of aerial assets, Neptune had 10 airtankers—six P2V Neptunes, and four of its modified BAe 146s—actively engaged on fires this year, compared to six P2Vs and two BAe 146s deployed during the 2013 season.

At the time those figures were released, two of the company’s P2V Neptunes, and one modified BAe 146 were racking up additional hours, fighting the Dog Rock fire at El Portal, outside Yosemite National Park in California.  Including that fire, Snyder reported that Neptune Aviation Services has deployed aircraft on over 350 fires so far this year.

“The fire seasons in Washington, Oregon and California all were above normal, and started earlier,” Snyder remarked.  “The standout was California, where the fire season began earlier and stayed intense for the entire season, with the King Fire the most complex.”

Keith Saylor, Director of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, reported that the number of hours flown on Western wildfires has exceeded those from 2013, with additional aircraft at work.  “During the 2013 fire season, we had four helicopters operating on wildland fires in the west,” he said.  “But, this year, it’s five–one 234 Chinook and four Vertol model 107s.  Four are under USFS exclusive contracts and one Vertol is under a call when needed contract.”

Saylor called this year’s fire season “a lot more intense,” compared to last year, due to the “extremely large fires that were extremely problematic to bring under control.”  That, he said, was particularly true along the West Coast.

“A large part of the fire activity was in Oregon and Washington, but California was also very large,” Saylor remarked.  “Last year, the fire season came to an abrupt halt in early September, but this year, it continues to hang around, especially in California.  In fact, both California and southern Oregon are especially at risk for major fires for the remainder of the season.”

According to Mike Rotonda, Aerial Firefighting Manager for Erickson, Inc., in Portland, there was a large increase in fire activity in the company’s home state of Oregon, as well as in Washington and California, in 2014. “And, as (this year’s) Wildfire season narrows in focus, we must remain aware that the entire State of California is still in the grips of a historic drought,” he stressed. “There is high potential for extremely devastating wildfires—especially in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas of Southern California—until substantial rains occur.”

While the numbers are still being compiled, Rotonda reported that the company’s flight hours are running about the same as they did in 2013.  The company has deployed 11 of its Erickson S-64 Air-Crane Helitankers so far this season, with eight under Exclusive Use USFS contracts, and one each with the Los Angeles (city) Fire Department, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and San Diego Gas and Electric.

Rotonda noted that the 2014 fire season was more localized than last year.  “In 2013, there were large fires in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho and many other Western States.  But this year, the extreme drought in Oregon, Washington and California contributed to the most devastating wildfires in the West.  California is still extremely dry, with extreme fire conditions, especially if Santa Ana wind events develop this fall,” he said.

Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations at CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho, reported that this year, the company flew more hours on fires in California compared to 2013.  He attributed that to the state’s ongoing drought conditions, and the fact that there were no really large fires in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Utah this year.

CHI Aviation had three Bell 205A-1++, and one Bell 212 HP on firefighting missions, which, said Kelley, was the same number of helicopters as last year.  “We maybe flew less hours this year compared to last year—at this time.  However, with three of our aircraft being extended, we might fly the same amount of hours as we did last year.”

For Sonora California-based Intermountain Helicopter, the fire season was less active than in previous years, until the King Fire broke out in Northern California in September, according to company President Drew Njirich.  Intermountain operates a single Bell 212, which was released from a 120-day USFS exclusive use contract September 29.

“This year, we operated on 10 fires in Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and California, of which five or six were large,” said Njirich, who estimated that the helicopter flew about 220 hours during the 2014 fire season.  “Our mission, which is primarily initial attack, really didn’t begin until July.  We brought in the rappellers, and supported them with water drops.”

“The 2014 Western fire season showed, as has been the case in the past, the value of maintaining a privately operated aerial firefighting industry,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).  “As fire seasons only get longer and more destructive, we will continue to depend on this industry to help protect our wildlands, as well as lives and property.”

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Erickson, Inc., Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the aerial firefighting industry.