Washington, D.C., March 28….At the urging of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry, Colorado State Senator Steve King (R-Grand Junction) has inserted language into a Bill, which–if enacted–would give the Colorado Division Of Fire Prevention And Control the authority to lease or contract three Type 1 helicopters and up to “four large aircraft from the Federal government or other sources” for aerial firefighting. The legislative proposal, known as Senate Bill 164, also contains a purchase option.
“We fully support the efforts of the State of Colorado to employ assets for aerial firefighting, but we believe it will be far more cost efficient to contract those assets from the private aerial firefighting industry, which is prepared to make them available for this year’s fire season,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “We applaud the fact that, unlike legislation introduced last year, Senate Bill 164 specifically includes language which permits the State of Colorado to contract those aircraft from private operators.”
According to Ron Hooper, Chief Executive Officer of Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services, the biggest impediment to state ownership and operation of aerial firefighting assets is what he called “the very large initial upfront investment,” which he explained.
“The state would be looking at aircraft acquisition costs and the expenses associated with the operational support infrastructure which includes constructing or leasing hangars, the hiring of flight crews and mechanics, and a spare parts inventory—all of which could run into the tens of millions of dollars. However, by contracting with private operators, these large upfront costs would be avoided.”
Neptune Aviation Services, Hooper pointed out, is currently engaged in discussions with high level Colorado state government officials concerning the contracting of an aircraft and crews for this year’s fire season.
“We could make a BAe 146 Next Generation tanker available on either a long-term exclusive use contract of as much as five years, or for as little as one year to help the state government get the initial experience of working with a private operator,” he noted. “We respect Colorado’s long term plan to have a dedicated aerial firefighting force, but we believe they should consider at least a one year contract with a private operator as a practical interim measure to protect the critical watershed in western Colorado,” said Hooper.
Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho, reported that should Colorado issue a request for proposal (RFP), the company could make a Sikorsky S-61, or a Eurocopter 332L-1 Puma available in June of this year for the duration of this year’s fire season. Both are Type 1 helicopters. While CHI Aviation, according to Kelley, has not had discussions with the Colorado state government about contracting operation of the helicopters, he reported that contracting would be a “win-win” situation.
“We already have the pilots on staff, and we are paying their salaries as well as their training costs. In addition, Colorado would receive a helicopter that is ready to fight fires, and position it to whatever location requested by the state,” Kelley said.
“When a state has an exclusive use contract with an aerial firefighting operator, the state knows it will have that resource available to them throughout the contract period, and not have to worry about it being moved elsewhere—which can happen with a tanker on a US Forest Service contract,” said Kristin Edwards, Vice-President, Sales for Olney, Texas-based Air Tractor, Inc. The company manufacturers the AT-802F, a single engine air tanker which has been used under state fire protection contracts. “In fact, I know of one operator of our aircraft, which has had contracts with Colorado since the 1990s. I am glad to see that Colorado continues to consider contracting with private operators, instead of having to deal with the costs of owning and maintaining their own aircraft.”
Air Tractor, Inc., CHI Aviation, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wild land firefighting.