Military Involvement in Wildland Firefighting Impacts Commercial Airtanker Fleet Modernization

The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) Questions Legislation For Expanded Air National Guard Role In Wildland Fire Containment

Washington, DC –July 30, 2012

The wildland fires that have ravaged much of the Western US this summer have focused increased attention on the use of Air National Guard aircraft in the airtanker role.  A recent new release by Congressman Elton Gallegly of California indicates he wants to amend a DoD bill to increase firefighting capabilities.  Under this bill Air National Guard units would preposition C-130 aircraft equipped with mobile airborne firefighting systems (MAFFS).  The aircraft would be available for immediate call-up by the US Forest Service (USFS) for initial attack at the outset of a fire.

The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association opposes this legislation, because under H.R. 5965, as the Bill is tagged, there is no language requiring the USFS to utilize all industry operated airtanker assets prior to putting the Air National Guard aircraft into play according to tom Eversole, Executive Director at AHSAFA.  The Bill, as it now reads, effectively puts the government in a position of competing with independently-owned airtanker operators and helicopter companies engaged in aerial firefighting, under USFS contract.  By law, a Federal agency cannot contract with another Federal entity for goods or services, unless it can be shown that they cannot be provided by a commercial enterprise as conveniently or economically as the other Federal agency according to the AHAFA spokesman.

The legislation is being introduced at a critical time for the aerial firefighting industry, whose specially trained pilots–and aircraft–are literally ready to fly to a wildland fire at a moment’s notice.  After decades of depending on converted, half-century old, but highly-maintained former military aircraft, the operators are well into a fleet modernization program–using their own money.  If the USFS is given the latitude to call up the Air National Guard as a first resort, this could give the two remaining airtanker operators a disincentive to bring on the number of next generation airtankers, which the country desperately needs.  The AHSAFA states this would also discourage other entrepreneurs from entering the airtanker business with modern equipment.

Additionally, there is the question of expanding the primary mission of the Air National Guard into the wildland firefighting business.  At the time the legislation was introduced, four squadrons equipped with two MAFFS units–each–were available for firefighting.  If the legislation were to pass, AHSAFA states a mission-creep scenario in which usage of the Air National Guard in wildland fire protection is significantly increased.  But in a report issued in 2010 by the Department of Defense (DoD) on joint use of Federal Forest Fire Fighting Assets/C-130 Firefighting Capabilities, the DoD took the position that given costs, training, and certification issues, the firefighting mission for the Air National Guard was not viable–in other than a secondary role.  At a time when the assets of the Air National Guard are stretched thin, due to global defense commitments, aerial firefighting should not be among its highest priorities.

This is at least the third time that Congressman Gallegly has introduced this legislation over the past decade.  Unless the Bill is structured to specifically state that Air National Guard assets would be used only if all commercial firefighting aircraft are already deployed, the AHSAFA urges Congress not to approve this legislative proposal.

Tom Eversole is the Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association, the Washington-based trade group representing the private operators of airtankers and helicopters engaged in wildland firefighting in the US.

Helicopter Operators Contributing To Colorado Fire Containment

With Air Tanker Availability Stretched Thin, Helicopter Operations Increase

Washington, DC…July 1, 2012…As the huge Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs reaches 50 percent containment, and other fires continue to burn throughout the state, helicopter operators continue to assist ground-based firefighters working to contain the widespread destruction.

“We deployed one of our helicopters to Colorado Springs at the direction of the US Forest Service, which has it under an exclusive use contract,” said Dan Sweet, Public Relations Manager for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon.  The aircraft, a twin rotor, twin engine Columbia Helicopters Model 107, uses a 1,100 gallon capacity external Bambi bucket to dispense water or fire retardant, and is support in the field by two pilots, a copilot, six mechanics and two fuel truck drivers.  The helicopter, Sweet reported, had been working a fire near Casper, Wyoming until June 28, when it was ordered to Colorado Springs.

The Waldo Canyon fire, which has consumed over 18,500 acres, caused hundreds of residents to evacuate, and continues to pose a direct threat to the United States Air Force Academy.  At the time the helicopter arrived, containment was about five percent.

Elsewhere in Colorado, Erickson Air-Crane, has had three of its twin-engine, S-64 helitankers on the High Park Fire near Fort Collins since June 20.  The unique aircraft are equipped for water or fire retardant dropping, using a 2,000 gallon capacity external tank.  Each is supported by a crew of six, including two pilots, to mechanics, one fuel truck driver, and one maintenance vehicle operator.

Also assisting on the High Park fire was Michigan-based Construction Helicopters, which, for 21 days, deployed a Bell 212HP, until it was released on June 28, for redeployment  to other hot spots in the West.  The twin-engine helicopter, which was based in Ogden, Utah, uses a 274 gallon capacity external bucket system to drop water or fire retardant, and is supported by a pilot, mechanic and fuel truck driver.

According to Larry Kelley, Construction Helicopters’ Manager of West Coast Operations, an additional helicopter, a Bell 205A-1++, assigned to Dillon, Montana, was flown to Colorado, and for the past two weeks has been working in an initial attack role in and around Rifle, Craig, and Glenwood Springs.  Currently, it is working out of Grand Junction.

“The Colorado wildfires are further proof that this is one of the worst fire seasons on record in the Western US,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association.  “The actions of Columbia Helicopters, Erickson Air-Crane, and Construction Helicopters are proving the capability of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry to respond when needed, as wildland fires increase in intensity, given the dry conditions throughout so much of the country.”

The three companies are members of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), a Washington-based trade association representing commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.