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.