Aerial Firefighters Deploying Assets Earlier With No Let-Up in California Fires

Washington, D.C., January 19, 2014….With a declared drought and record high winter temperatures driving an early fire season in California, operators of fixed wing air tankers and water-dropping helicopters are moving aircraft and crews into Southern California at a nearly unprecedented time of the year.

“This is probably the earliest start to the fire season in California that I have seen,” said Larry Kelley, the Boise, Idaho-based Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation.  The company now has three Bell 205A-1++ helicopters in Southern California, including one that is actively working the Colby Fire, northeast of Los Angeles, from nearby Lancaster.  The Colby Fire has burned over 1,700 acres, and is currently about 30 percent contained.  Another is based at Bracket, California, while the third helicopter was just ordered to San Bernardino by the US Forest Service, for possible assignment.  The three helicopters are operating under US Forest Service (USFS) Exclusive Use contracts.

Kelley reported that while CHI Aviation pilots are employed year-round, fuel truck drivers are seasonal.  However, due to the current fire activity, two additional drivers, who would have been hired in the spring, are now on staff.

Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, reported that on January 16, the company dispatched a P2V Neptune tanker to Lancaster, under a pre-season, optional use extension of the company’s current Exclusive Use USFS contract.  The tanker, which was dispatched to Lancaster Fox Field with a flight crew and maintenance crew of two, each, will remain there for what Snyder called “an extended period of time—at least 30 days.”

Neptune Aviation Services, he said, is prepared to respond to any further requests for assistance.

“We have a P2V that would probably be sent to our Alamogordo, New Mexico base, since New Mexico is already reporting red flag warnings,” said Snyder.  “At the same time, we have four of our modern BAe 146 tankers ready for deployment, if needed.  Our aircraft have already cycled through their winter maintenance, so we have the capability in place to respond to any coming contingency.”

Over the past few years, the fire seasons have increased in length, and Neptune Aviation Services has positioned itself to respond, accordingly.  “This is one of the earliest starts in recent years to the California fire season, but the trend over the past five to ten years, in California, is for the fire seasons to start that much earlier.”

Daniel Berlant, a California Department of Forestry And Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) spokesman, explained that the peak California fire season is usually May through November, but the length could vary by region of the State, based on weather and fuel conditions.  “This year, we never really transitioned out of the 2013 fire season in Southern California,” Berlant said.  “At the same time, the Northern California fire season is starting early.  For that reason, we are just starting to hire additional firefighters about four months earlier than usual.”

Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters, in fact, has already been in contact with CAL FIRE to let them know that it can make one of its Boeing Vertol 107-II helicopters available, according to Dan Sweet, company’s public relations manager.  “The helicopter could be pulled off its current logging assignment in Oakridge, Oregon, for immediate firefighting deployment, if needed,” he explained.

At the same time, Rogers Helicopters of Fresno reported that one of its Bell 212s has been put on a 15-day assignment to the Los Padres National Forest, in California, due to the high fire danger.

“The privately operated aerial firefighting companies have shown that they are well-prepared for the new reality of wildland fire risks, which are no longer seasonal,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).  “With ongoing drought and rising temperatures in much of the country, this has truly become a year-round business.”

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

Ongoing California Wildfire Season Putting Aerial Firefighters On Extended Alert

Washington, DC., January 3, 2014….With a record-breaking year for low rainfall in California, aerial firefighters are on alert during what has historically been a post-fire season period for the drought-plagued state.

Indicative of the seriousness of the extremely high fire danger right now, Rogers Helicopters received an exclusive use contract extension from the US Forest Service (USFS) for one of its Bell 212 helicopters, according to Robin Rogers, the Fresno-based company’s Vice President.

“It is the first time in many years that we have had a helicopter under a USFS exclusive use contract at this time of year.  But with no rain, and a long period of unusually warm weather, we are still coping with an ongoing fire season,” Rogers stated.

The 9-place, twin turbine engine helicopter, which had been dropping water on the Pfeiffer Fire near California’s scenic Big Sur in December, was redeployed Christmas Eve with a pilot, mechanic and fuel truck driver to Santa Maria, near the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California.  Rogers reported that the helicopter and crew are likely to remain there at least through January 6, although the contract duration is on a day to day basis.

He added the company has alerted the California Department Of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) of its readiness to deploy aircraft, if needed, for state lands protection.  “We have two Bell 212s, and one Rockwell Commander 690 fixed wing aircraft, used for air traffic control during aerial firefighting operations, available for immediate dispatch,” Rogers said.

Portland-headquartered Columbia Helicopters is also in discussions with CALFIRE, as well as the USFS, advising the agencies of aircraft availability.

“We have nothing on contract currently, but we could likely make aircraft available if needed,” explained Dan Sweet, Columbia Helicopters’ Public Relations Manager.  “Keith Saylor, our Fire Operations Manager, is monitoring the situation in California and is communicating with officials of both CALFIRE and the USFS, making them aware of our aircraft readiness.”

Although much of Columbia Helicopters’ fleet is undergoing winter maintenance, Sweet pointed out that there are helicopters currently working logging operations that could quickly be redeployed for firefighting.  “It has been many years since we have seen a fire season in California this severe—and running so late,” he said.

“California may be leading a trend away from seasonal to year-round periods of wildland fire danger,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington.  “Rogers Helicopters and Columbia Helicopters are fine examples of the capability of the privately operated aerial firefighting companies to adjust to what is becoming the new reality with wildland fire risks, thanks in part to global climate change.”

Columbia Helicopters and Rogers Helicopters are both members of AHSAFA, the Washington, DC-based trade association representing commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.