Aerial Firefighters Among First Responders To Massive Wildfire Near Yosemite

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.

Multi-State Wildland Fires Stretch Airborne Firefighting Fleets

Washington, DC…August 19, 2013….As wildland fires rage across nine far western States in the Continental US, airtanker and helicopter operators are continuing to support ground-based fire fighters, despite heavy demand for aerial assets.

“We have every available aircraft under USFS exclusive use contract working on–or prepared to deploy–to a fire,” said Ron Hooper, Chief Executive Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana.  The company’s fleet under contract, he explained, consists of seven legacy P2V Neptune tankers, currently based at Sacramento, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Redding, California, and the Oregon Cities of Redmond, Le Grande, and Klamath Falls.  A BAe 146, one of Neptune Aviation’s new-generation tankers, is stationed in Missoula.  As of August 15, the total fleet flew more than 31 hours from those locations on fires in California, Utah and Oregon, with an availability rate of 98 percent.

“This has been an extremely busy fire season for us,” said Larry Kelley, Manager of West Coast Operations for Construction Helicopters in Boise.  “At this time, we have four aircraft out on fires, including a Bell 205 working on the Beaver Creek fire in Idaho.”

The Bell 205, which is based in Salmon, Idaho, has been engaged on the Beaver Creek fire since August 14.  The fire, which is one of the most destructive this year, has burned over 64,000 acres near the resort area of Sun Valley, and was only about nine percent contained, as of August 17.

“The 2013 fire season started slowly, but it is now about average at this time of year,” reported Dan Sweet, Director of Public Relations for Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters.  “Two of our helicopters have been at their present locations for the past two weeks.”

Columbia Helicopters has two Vertol 107-IIs on the Douglas Complex fire in southwestern Oregon, and a similar model on the Butler fire in Hoopa, California.  One of its Chinook helicopters is in fire service near Tieton, in central Washington.

Rick Livingston, President of Inter-Mountain Helicopter, Inc. reported that the Sonora, California-based company’s single aircraft, a Bell 212, is also fighting the Butler fire.

“We have been in the area for the past two weeks, dropping water, and transporting ground-based responders to the fire lines,” he explained.  “Depending on the amount of equipment being carried, we can transport seven to eight passengers.”

Livingston noted that the Butler fire has been especially challenging, given the density of smoke being generated.  “We have flown over 50 hours in the past two weeks.  The heavy smoke has limited the amount of flying we can do,” he said.

“The privately operated aerial firefighting industry in the US continues to prove that it is capable of responding quickly to multiple fires across a large portion of the country,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association.  “With well-maintained aircraft, operated by highly trained crews, this industry is an invaluable tool in what has become a new normal—widespread, more destructive wildland fires, and longer fire seasons.”

Columbia Helicopters, Construction Helicopters, Inter-Mountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington, DC-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.