Washington, D.C…August 28, 2013….In support of crews on the ground, privately operated aerial firefighting companies in the western US were among the first to deploy aircraft to the massive Rim fire in California’s Tuolumne County.
The fire, which has been active since August 17, is the biggest, currently active wildland fire in the United States, and one of the largest ever in California. Now just over 20 percent contained, it has destroyed over 184,000 acres, and spread to the western edges of Yosemite National Park, as well as the nearby Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which provides drinking water to more than two million San Francisco Bay Area residents.
“We have been on the Rim fire since it began,” said Robin Rogers, Vice-President of Fresno-based Rogers Helicopters. The company, he explained, has two Bell 212s, one flying from the Columbia Air Attack Base, and another from Bald Mountain. Both are engaged in dropping water from external buckets. Rogers Helicopters is also flying an AC 690 fixed wing, Rockwell Twin Commander turboprop as an initial attack, command and control aircraft in support of the aerial firefighting operation. The helicopters are being flown under US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contracts.
A Sikorsky S-61, operated by Construction Helicopters, has been working on the Rim fire since August 22, under a USFS call when needed contract. According to Larry Kelley, the company’s Manager, West Coast Operations, in Boise, Idaho, the S-61 had just come off a firefighting job in Oregon when it was immediately reassigned to the Rim fire, and is now averaging five to six flight hours daily, out of Groveland. The twin turbine helicopter is being used to douse the fire with water from an external bucket.
“This has been a busy fire season for us, with all five of our helicopters assigned to a fire right now—three in Idaho, one in Montana, and the S-61 in California,” Kelley noted.
Neptune Aviation Services has been flying fire retardant dropping missions since the outbreak of the fire, initially with two of its P2V Neptune fixed wing tankers, then added a third on August 27, at the request of the USFS, which has the three airtankers under an exclusive use contract. The first two aircraft have been flying an average of 4.4 hours each day–with six retardant drops, per plane–out of Stockton and Fresno. The third P2V, which was just repositioned from Moses Lake, Washington, will fly on the Rim fire from Stockton.
“The Rim fire is being fought over extremely rugged terrain, which makes it very challenging for air tanker operations,” said Dan Snyder, the Missoula, Montana-based company’s Chief Operating Officer. “But then, that is very typical for a California wildfire.”
“This fire not only poses a danger to one of the most valuable components of the National Park system, but to the quality of the water supply for a major urban area,“ noted Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the Washington-based American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “The rapid response of the private enterprise aerial firefighting sector is a clear illustration of why maintaining this industry is so essential, especially when we are seeing increasingly destructive wildland fires threatening municipal infrastructures, as well as our natural resources.”
Construction Helicopters, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington, DC-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.