Aerial Firefighters Pitting Tankers And Helicopters Against Massive Wildfire Near Yosemite

Aerial firefighters continue to battle the huge Detwiler Fire, burning across much of Mariposa County, near California’s iconic Yosemite National Park. To date, the fire has burned over 119 square miles, destroyed some 130 structures, and resulted in mass evacuations throughout the central California community. It is currently 40 percent contained.
“We were among the first to deploy air assets to the fire when it broke out on July 16,” said Dan Snyder, the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company’s Chief Operating Officer.
At the time, the BAe 146 was joined by one of the operator’s four remaining legacy P2V Neptunes, flying under a US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contract. The P2V, which was working out of Fresno, has since been assigned elsewhere, Snyder explained. The BAe 146, however, continues to work the Detwiler Fire, under a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) exclusive use contract. “Under the contract, that tanker is considered a ‘California State Asset,” said Snyder. “It stays in California.”
In fact, the BAe 146 tanker is currently averaging 10 to 12 missions per day, dropping fire retardant, not only on the Detwiler fire, but on others which continue to plague much of central and southern California—such as the Whittier Fire near Santa Barbara—as directed by CAL FIRE. Snyder pointed out that thanks to its jet speed and endurance, it is also working on numerous unnamed fires, over a rough triangle bounded by Paso Robles, Fresno and Castle. The aircraft is supported by two mechanics in the field, and flown by a two-person flight crew.
Snyder added that this is the third year that Neptune Aviation Services has had one of its BAe 146 tankers under contract from CAL FIRE.
Also among the first responders with airborne assets, Rogers Helicopters has had a Bell 212 HP working on the Detwiler Fire out of Castle, California, under a USFS exclusive use contract. According to Robin Rogers, the Fresno-based company’s Vice-President, the helicopter was deployed from the Stanislaus National Forest, starting with the initial attack phase on July 16.
“The helicopter had been flying about seven hours each day, and doing about 100 daily water drops, until heavy smoke conditions caused flying to be reduced,” Rogers noted. “But it will remain on the fire until otherwise directed by the USFS.”
Rogers Helicopters has also provided a fixed wing, twin engine Turbo Commander in an air traffic management role on the Detwiler Fire since July 19. Repositioned from the Sierra National Forest, and flying out of the Fresno Air Attack base, it carries an air attack officer, who coordinates the activities of the helicopters and fixed wing firefighting aircraft. “It flies over the fire and directs those assets to go where needed,” Rogers said.
“California, and much of the West, are experiencing a late-starting, but explosive fire season, due to an abundance of dry vegetation, produced by heavy winter rains,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “As dry conditions continue to dominate much of the country, the modern fixed wing air tankers, and helicopters, operated by private industry, will be essential tools to combat increasingly devastating wildland fires, which have become a new normal.”
Neptune Aviation Services and Rogers Helicopters are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before federal agencies tasked with overseeing and managing government owned wildlands and natural resources.

Aerial Firefighters Confronting Explosive Start Of Western Fire Season

Washington, DC, July 17th….Aerial firefighting companies are combating a huge swath of wildland fires, which have exploded across the Western United States within the past few weeks.
“Our crews are working around the clock to keep our aircraft available for the needs of the US Forest Service (USFS),” said Josh Beckham, General Manager, Helimax Aviation in Sacramento, California. “We anticipate a very busy next few weeks.”
Beckham reported that Helimax has five Bell 205A1++, one Bell 212 HP, and two CH-47D Chinooks operating in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, California and New Mexico under USFS exclusive use contracts. Those helicopters are being flown by a 21-pilot cadre, with field maintenance by a staff of 59. An additional CH-47D, and an Airbus H125 AStar are slated for deployment within the next few weeks.
Helimax has also dispatched two fuel trucks to the USFS Region 5 Fire Watch Cobra Program to support the fueling requirements of two USFS-owned Bell Cobra helicopters engaged in aerial supervision, mapping and reconnaissance missions.
Keith Saylor, Director of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, noted a recent fire surge in Arizona, but added that this has also been the case in Oregon and Montana.
Saylor reported that Columbia Helicopters has a Bambi bucket-equipped CH-47D currently operating out of Tucson, Arizona, as well as two CH-47Ds, modified with internal tanks, flying from Helena, Montana, and Rifle, Colorado. All three are under exclusive use contracts with the USFS. Two of the company’s Vertol 107s are in action under USFS call when needed contracts, at Colstrip, Montana, and The Dalles, Oregon.
The five helicopters are operating with a field staff of 41 including pilots, mechanics and fuel truck drivers.
“Our helicopters have been very busy since May,” Saylor stated. “I think the West will have a very active fire season, given the amount of fuel resulting from this year’s heavy winter rains.”
Rick Livingston, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Columbia, California, reported that his company, which operates a Bell 212 HP is also anticipating a busy fire season—especially during August and September. “August will be especially bad, if the combination of high heat and dry weather continues,” he said.
Since July 4, Intermountain Helicopter’s Bell 212 HP has been operating under a USFS exclusive use contract, out of Stead Airport, near Reno, battling the Sandstone Fire outside of Fernley, Nevada. “It has been doing mainly bucket (water dropping) work, as well as personnel transport,” Livingston explained. “The helicopter is supported by a pilot, mechanic and fuel truck driver.”
Livingston added that the company took delivery of a Bell 412, which is slated to go on a call when needed contract from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) by July 20. Intermountain, he said, is in the process of bringing the helicopter onto its operating certificate, along with avionics upgrades required to meet the agency’s contractual specifications.
The current fire season has not been confined only to the lower 48 States. Fresno, California-headquartered Rogers Helicopters now has three Bell 212 HPs working under exclusive use contracts for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. According to Robin Rogers, the company’s Vice-President, they are currently flying out of Delta Junction, McGrath and Soldotna, staffed by four pilots and four mechanics.
“We deployed helicopters to Alaska as early as April 20th of this year, and by mid-June, we had three additional Bell 212 HPs working under USFS contracts in California,” Rogers explained.
The company assigned six pilots, six mechanics and six fuel truck drivers to those aircraft.
“We anticipated a serious fire season, and were very proactive with hiring more staff well before the season began,” said Rogers. “Although this year’s fire season began a little later than usual, it has greatly accelerated as the vegetation produced by heavy rains in the Western US dried out.”
Fixed wing air tanker operator Neptune Aviation Services has “been all over the Western US this year,” reported Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana, company. “Our tankers are moving around the West daily, depending on fire activity changes.”
Snyder reported that Neptune Aviation Service’s fleet of eight operational BAe 146 jet tankers, plus its remaining four P2V Neptunes are currently at work. Except for one BAe 146 under a CALFIRE exclusive use contract, all are flying under exclusive use contracts with the USFS. The fleet at field level is being supported by 24 pilots, and 24 maintenance personnel.
“Our operations in the western US ramped up before July 1st,” Snyder said, adding that between June 29 and July 11, alone, the fleet had racked up nearly 600 missions totaling 415 flight hours.
“Even with all of the fires going on in the West, our flying is on par with what we have done in the past,” Snyder remarked. “The difference is there has been an explosion in new fire starts, just within the last two weeks. It’s unusual that so many would begin in such a short time frame.”
Columbia Helicopters, Helimax Aviation, Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are members of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association, the Washington-based trade association representing the interests of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the US government agencies concerned with protection of federal wildlands.