Aerial Firefighters Respond To Early Season Pacific Northwest Fires

The aerial firefighting industry has deployed a significant number of aircraft and support personnel to the Pacific Northwest, as wildland fires have raged throughout Oregon and Washington.  The surge of activity includes extensive operations on the Carlton Complex fire, which has so far burned over 243,000 acres, and is considered Washington’s largest fire to date.

“Fires of this intensity usually do not happen in the Pacific Northwest before mid-to-late August, so we are operating there about 30 days earlier than usual,” said Ron Hooper, Chief Executive Officer of airtanker operator Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana.  Hooper reported that, of the company’s 10 large aerial tankers currently under USFS exclusive use contract, five–three P2V Neptunes and two BAe 146s–have been operating on fires in Oregon and Washington over the last 13 days, from bases in Redmond, Oregon, and Moses Lake, Washington.

“Most of that activity has been on the Carlton Complex, and the Chiwaukum fires–the two largest in Washington.”  He added that, so far, those aircraft have flown over 200 missions, dropped more than 500,000 gallons of fire retardant, and have averaged nine hours of duty time, per day.

Heavy lift helicopter specialist Columbia Helicopters has also responded to the sudden surge in fire activity, having deployed all portions of its fleet of aircraft currently available for firefighting.  That includes a Columbia Vertol 107-II, and a Columbia Model 234 deployed respectively to the Carlton Complex, and Chiwaukum fires.  Three other Columbia Vertol 107-IIs, are working on fires out of Chester, California, the Willamette National Forest at Detroit Lake, and Hood River, Oregon.  According to Dan Sweet, the Portland, Oregon-based company’s Public Relations Manager, two more Vertol 107-IIs were reassigned from logging operations in Canada to firefighting missions under contract to the British Columbia provincial government.

“Columbia Helicopters has had aircraft on contract to the US Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest since May of this year,” Sweet said.  “It has been a very busy fire season, although not an extraordinary one, except to say that we usually don’t see this much activity in Oregon and Washington until at least August.”

Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho, reported that the company has made four helicopters available to the US Forest Service under exclusive use contracts.  Of those, three are now actively engaged on fires.  One, a Bell 212 has been dropping water on the Carlton Complex fire for the past two weeks.  Two other aircraft, both Bell 205s, have also been busy, with one in Northern California on the Bully Fire, and the other on a wildland fire in Garden Valley, Idaho.  The helicopters have averaged four to seven hours of flight time daily.

“We also have a Bell 205 in a standby mode at Salmon, Idaho, because of the fire risk generated by a considerable amount of lightning strikes in the area.  It has been a steady fire season,” Kelley remarked.

“If you make a comparison between our activity this year, and what it was at the same time last year, we are much busier,” stated Rick Livingston, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California.  “Everyone we are talking with seems to be flying on these fires in the Pacific Northwest right now.”

Livingston reported that the company’s single Bell 212 is flying a variety of missions including water dropping as well as “rappelling” or transporting firefighters to the fire lines. Currently, the helicopter is based at Redmond, Oregon, flying under an exclusive use US Forest Service contract.

“Although these massive fires came much earlier than anyone anticipated, the privately operated aerial firefighting industry was ready with a quick and efficient response,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington.  “Our members have shown, once again, they are well prepared to respond to wildland fires, regardless of the timing of fire seasons, anywhere.”

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

Private Aerial Firefighters Boost State Assets In Record California Fire Season

In what has already been declared a record year for wild land fires in California, private operators of air tankers and helicopters have provided invaluable assistance to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), one of the few state fire protection agencies that operates its own fleet of air assets.

According to just-released CAL FIRE data, 2,990 fires erupted in the state between January 1, and July 7, compared to 2,667 during the comparable 2013 period.  So far this year, 24,218 acres have been burned, compared to 30,869 for the same time last year.  This compares with a five-year average of 2,101 fires, and 18,184 acres burned.

The fire risk is now more year-round than seasonal in California, thanks to an ongoing drought.

“With one exception, we have been operating on a fire somewhere in California, monthly, since the start of the year,” said Robin Rogers, Vice President of Rogers Helicopters in Fresno, California.  “In more normal years, we would not be called to a fire until May at the earliest.  It has been a very unusual year.”

In fact, one of the company’s Bell 212 HP, medium, twin-engine helicopters, operating under a CAL FIRE contract, was released less than a week ago from a now-contained fire which raged across Napa and Yolo counties in Northern California.  The helicopter, explained Rogers, was engaged in water dropping for the duration of that fire.

Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, reported that since January, the large airtanker company has had as few as two, but as many as six of its aircraft working within California—on and off—since January.  The fleet has included as many as three of its modern, BAe 146 converted tankers, as well as its legacy P2V Neptunes.

At the height of the Napa/Yolo counties fire earlier this month, Neptune had two of its BAe 146s and one P2V flying on the fire out of Redding, California, under US Forest Service contracts.  “Since May, we’ve had at least one aircraft stationed in Redding at any given time,” Snyder pointed out.  Two additional P2Vs are currently positioned in California—at Porterville and Lancaster.

“Earlier in the year, California accounted for the majority of our flight hours for 2014, although, most of our work has now shifted to fires in other western states,” Snyder reported.  “But, that could change in a single moment.”

Snyder also noted the performance of the company’s BAe 146 tankers in fighting fires in California and elsewhere.  “We have found that the aircraft’s improved tanking system has proven to be extremely effective, and well-received in the field.  It has exceeded all of our expectations for effectiveness.”

Rick Livingston, owner of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, deployed its recently upgraded Bell 212 over a five-day period to a wildfire near Yosemite National Park for CAL FIRE.  The helicopter, which was engaged in water drops, underwent extensive modifications over the winter, including replacement of its Pratt & Whitney-Canada twin PT6-3 engines with the PT6-3B.  “It gives us an extra margin of safety, especially in the event of a single-engine-out situation,” Livingston explained.

In addition, other upgrades were carried out, as a result of contractual requirements from the USFS, including a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), and the installation of a FastFin® tail boom modification enabling the helicopter to carry additional payload, while affording easier tail rotor management, and greater stability in all flight regimes.

While the helicopter is now based in Elko, Nevada, Livingston said that it could be redeployed to California immediately.  “California is in for a very bad fire year,” he remarked.

“The record number of fires in California has proven, once again, the value of maintaining a viable, privately operated aerial firefighting industry,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington.  Even for a state which has long maintained its own airborne firefighting capability, there will be an increasing need for outside assistance from the air, as year-round fire risk becomes the new normal.”

Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry in the US.