Aerial Firefighters Moving Quickly To Contain Northern California Firestorms

Aerial firefighting companies are working to contain a series of firestorms sweeping over Northern and Central California, including the massive Valley and Butte fires, which have destroyed literally hundreds of homes and displaced thousands since Labor Day.

“As the Pacific Northwest fires are starting to slow, more aerial attack resources are becoming available to California just when it appears they need them most,” said Todd Petersen, Vice President, Marketing for Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters. “We’ll do whatever we can to support the ground crews in getting ahold of these fires, and hopefully we can minimize any further damage.”

Columbia Helicopters has had a Columbia Model 234 Chinook, Flying out of Placerville, on the Butte Fire since September 10, under a California Department Of Forestry And Fire Protection (CALFIRE) call when needed contract. Supported by a crew of two pilots and six mechanics/drivers, it uses a 2,600 gallon SEI Bambi Bucket with Torrentula Powerfill for water drops. Flying up to eight hours daily, the helicopter was one of the first aerial assets to be deployed on that fire.

An additional Columbia Model 234 Chinook was redeployed from the Dry Gulch Fire in Eastern Oregon, for duty on the Valley Fire out of Lakeport, on September 15, under a US Forest Service (USFS) call when needed contract. The helicopter will also be engaged in water dropping.

Large helicopters have also been dispatched to the fires by CHI Aviation, which is using two CH 47Ds flying out of Jackson, and one S-61 working from the Vina Helibase near Corning. According to Larry Kelley, the company’s Boise-based Director of Fire Operations, they are being used for water, as well as fire-retardant dropping flights. A total of 25 staff are supporting the three helicopters in the field, under CALFIRE call when needed contracts.

Kelley added that CHI Aviation’s sister company, Helimax Aviation, added a Bell 205A-1++ to the Rough Fire on September 15, under a USFS exclusive use contract. The Rough Fire is considered a serious threat to Sequoia National Park. “It has a pilot, mechanic and fuel truck driver, and will be doing whatever is required to support the firefighting operations there, including water drops, troop shuttle, and longline support missions for ground-based firefighters,” he said.

Rogers Helicopters had a Bell 212HP helicopter on the Butte fire working in an initial attack mode during the first two days, according to Robin Rogers, Vice President of the Fresno-headquartered company “Visibility, and the occasional drone, have been among the challenges with fighting these fires,” said Rogers, who reported that he has a Bell 212HP on an exclusive use USFS contract, and two similar aircraft working under exclusive use contracts for CALFIRE. Each helicopter is supported by a pilot, mechanic and fuel tender.

Air tanker operator Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, has been flying one of its BAe 146 jets out of the Sacramento-McClellan Airport on both the Valley and Butte fires since September 9. That aircraft is operating under a CALFIRE exclusive use contract, and is staffed by two pilots, and two mechanics, according to Dan Snyder, the company’s Chief Operating Officer. Snyder reported that on September 14, a second BAe 146 was positioned at Chico for duty on the Northern California fires, under a USFS call when needed contract.

“Our entire fleet of 12 active tankers—six BAe 146s and six P2V Neptunes–are now deployed,” said Snyder. “Five—three P2Vs and two BAe 146s—have been flying on the Cabin and Rough Fires, out of Fresno. Six other aircraft that are in Southern California, Utah, Oregon and Idaho, as fires continue throughout much of the West.”

Major fires also continue to burn in Central California and the Los Angeles basin, which is where Erickson Incorporated is currently focusing its aerial firefighting activity. Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, the company’s firefighting operations are based out of Medford, Oregon.

“We have had four Aircrane S-64 helicopters on the Rough Fire for the past two weeks,” said Andrew Mills, the firm’s Vice President, Commercial Aviation. “Right now, we have a total of five S-64s working in Central California, as well as two on fires in the LA basin, and one in San Diego County.” Another S-64, he said, is enroute for assignment to either the Butte or Rough Fire, depending on dispatch decision.”

Mills reported that Erickson Incorporated has over 100 people supporting the operation of these aircraft in the field. All of the helicopters are flying water dropping missions, under exclusive use USFS contracts.

“The rapid response of these operators during what is probably the worst fire season in California’s history is another example of the contribution private operators are continuing to make in the fight against increasingly destructive wild land fires,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “Without a dedicated aerial firefighting team, the potential destruction of these terrible fires would be that much greater and more widely spread.”

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Erickson Aviation, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the privately-operated aerial firefighting industry before the USFS, and other government agencies with responsibility for natural resource management and protection.

Aerial Firefighters Meeting California Fire Emergency, Praise Fire Protection Agencies

The private aerial firefighting industry is engaging in an ongoing battle to contain some of the two-dozen wildfires currently burning throughout California, including the largest, most destructive Rocky Fire, which, as of August 5, has burned over 68,300 acres of Lake, Yolo, and Colusa Counties near Clear Lake.

At the same time, the operators have given the US Forest Service (USFS) and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) high marks for their efforts to coordinate the deployment of aerial assets throughout the state during what is shaping up to be one of the worst fire seasons in the state’s history.  In fact, according to CAL FIRE statistics, between January 1, and August 1, 2015, 100,000 acres had been consumed by 4,201 California wildfires—twice the average acreage during the previous five year period–prompting California Governor Jerry Brown, to declare a state of emergency.

“The USFS and CAL FIRE are doing their very best to coordinate and manage the deployment of aerial assets, which are stretched,” said Robin Rogers, Vice-President of Fresno-based Rogers Helicopters.  “It’s business as usual—but there has been a lot of business.  We pack up and go to wherever the firefighting agencies need us.”

Rogers Helicopters has had a Bell 212 helicopter operating on the Rocky Fire under a call when needed (CWN) contract with CAL FIRE since the fire commenced.  The helicopter, Rogers explained, is engaged in water drops as well as firefighting personnel transport.  Two additional Bell 212s are operating under USFS exclusive use (EU) contracts on fires in the El Dorado and Tahoe National Forests, along with two fixed-wing Turbine Commanders—flown where required—for coordination of aircraft during initial attack.

“With so many fires burning, trying to deploy assets to the location with the greatest need is probably like a world-class chess game,” said Columbia Helicopters’ Public Relations Manager Dan Sweet.  “We have the greatest respect for the USFS and CAL FIRE.  It appears that both agencies are doing an exemplary job of finding a balance between working on established fires and providing Initial Attack (IA) aircraft for areas that are still likely to burn.”

The Portland, Oregon-headquartered company has had a Columbia Model 234 Chinook flying on the Rocky Fire out of Clear Lake, since July 30, under a CWN contract with CAL FIRE.  The helicopter has been flying between five and eight hours, per-day, dropping water from a 2,600-gallon SEI Bambi bucket.

Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho stated that “all agencies are working very well together,” putting available assets to their best use in order to contain the fires.  Two of the company’s CH-47D Chinooks have been working on the Rocky Fire since August 1.

“The Chinooks are each averaging about seven hours daily dropping water from 2,000 gallon external buckets,” Kelly pointed out.  “Both are flying for CAL FIRE under CWN contracts.”

Along with the Chinooks, CHI Aviation has had an S-61 under a CAL FIRE CWN contract, as well as six Bell medium helicopters under exclusive use contracts for the USFS.

According to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation, five of the Missoula, Montana-based company’s fixed wing air tankers–three P2Vs and two BAe 146s–are operating in California under USFS exclusive use contracts.  A third BAe 146, he noted, is operating under a CAL FIRE exclusive use contract.

“Two of the P2Vs, along with one of the BAe 146s flying under the USFS contract, have been dropping retardant on the Rocky Fire since the day it started,” Snyder noted.  “In fact, about half of our fleet is now working in California.  The Rocky Fire is one of six fire complexes going on in the state that we have been working over the past week.”

As Snyder explained, a “complex” is when smaller fires merge into a single large one.  He referred to the support and logistics infrastructure needed to support the tanker operations as “fairly robust.”

“We have seen no issues involving tanker base readiness.  They have been well prepared, and prepared on time,” he said.

Snyder added that coordination with both Cal Fire and the USFS during the present fire emergency has “worked very well,” given the huge number of fires burning within one state.  “It’s more normal to see numerous fires spread over a large multi-state area.  What we are seeing in California is extraordinary,” he remarked.

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Neptune Aviation, and Rogers Helicopters are members of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the interests of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before Congress, the US Forest Service, and other federal and state regulatory agencies with responsibility for natural resource protection.