The widespread and highly destructive fires which scorched much of the Western US wild lands this year drove increased demand for aerial firefighting services.
“We saw an unusual amount of asset utilization, and a somewhat greater than normal extension of US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contracts during the 2012 fire season,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “Although the fire season has largely wound down, California and Colorado remain high risk areas, so we are likely to see more activity before year end.”
Demand for airborne firefighting has trickled down to some of the smallest operators, such as Intermountain Helicopter, which flies a single Bell 212. The medium-size helicopter is used to transport crews to the fire lines, as well as for water dropping. “Our utilization was somewhat better than what we have averaged over the last five years, and much greater compared to our last two years,” reported Rick Livingston, owner of the Sonora, California-based company. He pointed out that his exclusive use contract with the USFS was extended this year by nearly a month. “In other years, we might have been extended by a couple of weeks.” Intermountain, which employs three pilots, bases the helicopter at White Cloud, for deployment to the nearby Tahoe National Forest in Northern California. But this year, explained Livingston, the USFS sent the helicopter elsewhere a good deal of the time. “We did considerably more ‘off-forest’ work, meaning that we went where we are not normally assigned, such as Montana, Oregon, and Southern California,” he noted.
Central Point, Oregon-based Erickson Air-Crane, which has eight of its heavy lift Erickson Air-Crane helicopters on exclusive use contracts, and one on a call when needed contract with the USFS, had two of its four exclusive use contracts extended–one by a week, the other by 14 days. “We have four contracts still within their scheduled period, which may be extended because of the high fire danger in California this year,” said Mike Rotonda, the company’s Aerial Firefighting Manager. Rotonda reported a 25 percent utilization increase, over prior years, due to the greater number and size of fires throughout the Western US. “This year we started in Arizona and New Mexico, but then the fire activity moved north into Washington, Montana, Idaho and Colorado,” he said. “Just about every Western State had some serious fire activity.”
Larry Kelley, Manager, West Coast Operations for Construction Helicopters in Boise, Idaho, noted a 50-100 percent utilization increase this year, spread over a fleet of six medium helicopters including a Bell 212HP, three Bell 205A1++ models, and two Bell 205s. All were deployed under exclusive use USFS contracts. The helicopters, which normally operate from bases at Ogden, Utah; Dillon, Montana; and Salmon, Idaho, said Kelley, were rarely at base during this year’s fire season. “The Bell 212 out of Ogden spent 113 days away from base, out of the 120 day contract duration, and flew about 450 hours this year. In a normal fire season, it will fly around 300 hours,” Kelley noted. “The Bell 205 at Dillon was there for only five days out of the 120 day contract, flew 300 hours–about double what it normally does. The Bell 205s at Salmon also got extensive use at 300 hours, although their utilization is between 150-175 hours in other years.”
The dry conditions, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, resulted in extended contracts for Hillcrest Aircraft Company of Lewiston, Idaho. “Almost without exception, all of our contracts were extended beyond the mandatory availability period,” said company Chief Pilot Stuart Taft. “Usually some contracts will go beyond the mandatory availability period–but for all of them to be extended is very unusual. I have not seen this kind of a fire season in the five years I have been here.” Hillcrest operates a mixed fleet of medium and light helicopters used for firefighting, including three Bell 205++, three Bell 407, and 4 Bell 206L models. The helicopters flew not only under Federal contracts, but for State agencies, including the Idaho Department of Lands, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which put one of the company’s Bell 206Ls under a call when needed contract. “We based that helicopter at Bemidji for three weeks, from late September through mid-October, even though the Minnesota fire season is typically over well before then,” said Taft. “We were told that 2012 was Minnesota’s driest in 100 years.”
“About 90 percent of our exclusive use contracts have been extended by at least 30 days this year,” said Dan Snyder, President of Neptune Aviation Services, the most prominent operator of large, fixed-wing airtankers in the US. He attributed that to the longer fire season, and the overall reduction of the large airtanker fleet in recent years. “Our tankers have flown about the same number of hours, but have been busier within the contract periods, because there were less lulls between fires, and we were moved to more regions of the country–faster than in the past,” said Snyder. “The result was that our tankers were in the air some 85 percent of the time, which is somewhat higher than our average.”
Construction Helicopters, Erickson Air-Crane, Hillcrest Aircraft Company, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.