With No Let-Up In Sight, Aerial Firefighters Continue To Battle California Blazes

Aerial firefighters have continued to battle a record number and sizes of wildland fires in California, as drought and high temperatures persist with little to no relief in sight.

Of the seven major wildfires still uncontained in California, the King Fire, which has burned 82,000 acres over 130 square miles in the El Dorado National Forest—just east of Sacramento—since Friday, September 12, is the most destructive, and remains just 10 percent contained.

“We have had as many as four aircraft working on the King Fire since it started,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer for Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana.  The company has deployed two of its modified BAe 146 tankers, and two of its legacy P2V Neptunes, starting in an initial attack role, and continuing to drop fire retardant.  Snyder also pointed out that Neptune has deployed assets to “most of the 11 fires burning in California,” at the height of the state’s September fire crisis.

“Right now, we have six aircraft working fires in California—three BAe 146s and three P2Vs, flying out of Redding, Chico, Fresno, San Bernardino, and Sacramento McClellan in California, and an additional P2V based in Kamath Falls, Oregon, operating on fires in Northern California, as well Oregon,”  said Snyder. He added that as of Friday, September 19th, the six aircraft have flown in excess of 220 hours—just within the previous week.  Neptune Aviation Services currently has a total active fleet of 10 tankers, including four BAe 146, and six P2Vs.

Snyder called the California fire season, “above average” in terms of activity, intensity and the length of the season, which started much earlier than normal.  That, he said, has resulted in “a California-centric,” post-season planning

“We believe that our aircraft will probably be needed later in the fire season in California, than normally would be the case, based on what we have seen this year,” he remarked.  “We are already planning for that possibility.”

Fresno-based Rogers Helicopters dispatched a Bell 212 to the King Fire, along with a pilot, mechanic and fuel truck driver, under a US Forest Service call when needed (CWN) contract, according to company Vice-President Robin Rogers.  He reported that the company has also contributed a Turbine Commander fixed wing aircraft to the King Fire to aid with initial attack.

Aerial firefighters also continue to battle the still uncontained Happy Camp Complex Fire in the Klamath National Forest.  Among them is CHI Aviation, which has deployed a Bell 205 working from the nearby Scott Valley Airport.  “The helicopter has been on that fire for the past two weeks,” explained Larry Kelley, the company’s Director Of Fire Operations in Boise, Idaho.  “It has been used for water drops, as well as the transportation of firefighters and equipment to the fire lines.”

Another Bell 205, Kelley reported, was moved from Salmon, Idaho, more than a week ago to fight the Boles Fire in Weed, California.  It was also engaged in water-dropping as well as personnel and supplies transport.  “We have another Bell 205 in Boise, ready for dispatch to California, if needed,” he remarked “If the weather pattern doesn’t change in California, we’ll probably be there through at least mid-October.”

Also working from the Scott Valley Airport during the current emergency is a Columbia Helicopters Vertol 107, twin rotor, twin engine helicopter.  According to Todd Petersen, the Portland, Oregon, company’s Vice President, Marketing, the helicopter has been deployed on the Happy Camp Complex Fire, as well as “multiple fires in the area,” for the past two weeks.  The helicopter uses a 1,300 gallon capacity external Bambi bucket for water dropping.  “We continue to be in for a very long fire season in California,” Petersen noted.

Drew Njirch, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, reported that the company’s single Bell 212 continues to work from the South Lake Tahoe Airport on the Irene Fire, burning in the Mokelumne Wilderness along the crest of the central Sierra Nevada Mountains.  The helicopter has been on the fire since September 13, when it was directed there from Bozeman, Montana.  Njirch said that its primary job has been moving firefighters and equipment.  “We have done some water dropping, but most of our work has been putting boots on the ground,” he said.

The operator is also among those predicting a long fire season in California.  “The Northern California fires will give way to additional fire activity driven by the Santa Anna winds in Southern California, by October or November.  I fully anticipate that this will be the case.”

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are members of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington, D.C. based trade association representing the aerial firefighting industry.

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.