More Aerial Assets Converging On Northern Arizona Blaze

—   More helicopters and fixed wing aircraft are being deployed to battle the Slide Fire in Northern Arizona.  The fire, which has consumed over 4,830 wildland acres, is burning in the Flagstaff area which includes Sedona, one of the state’s major tourist destinations.

The additional aerial assets have been ordered to the scene by the US Forest Service, as more residents have been told to evacuate by local authorities over the last few days.  One of the aircraft, a Columbia Helicopters Model 234 twin rotor Chinook, arrived in Sedona on May 21, with two pilots and 10 mechanics.  The helicopter had been on initial attack standby at Prescott.

“This is the first time that specific helicopter has been used on a fire this season,” said Dan Sweet, Columbia Helicopters’ public relations manager in Portland, Oregon.  The helicopter, he explained, is equipped with a 2,650 gallon SEI Torrentula Bambi Bucket, with an automatic Powerfill System, which requires only 18 inches of water to work.  “The Chinook is using a water source in Oak Creek Canyon, which is a difficult to reach, tree-lined area within the fire zone,” he added.  “Using the closest available water sources saves a tremendous amount of flight time, which can be critical in slowing a fire this size.”

Larry Kelley, the Boise, Idaho-based Director-Fire Operations for CHI Aviation reported that on May 22, the company dispatched one of its Bell 212s from its base in Ogden, Utah, to Flagstaff, to assist with the Slide Fire, under a USFS exclusive use contract.

The helicopter, capable of carrying nine passengers plus a pilot, arrived on the scene with a pilot, mechanic and fuel truck driver.  “It will be used to fly water dropping missions, or for transport of supplies or firefighters, depending on the Forest Service’s needs,” Kelley explained.  “We don’t expect to encounter any significant difficulties, in spite of the rugged canyon (landscape) involved.  All our crews are very experienced with this; in fact, it’s just another fire, for us.”

CHI Aviation, Kelley added, has positioned two additional helicopters—both Bell 205 models–on standby for deployment to the fire if the US Forest Service needs them.  One is currently located in Redding, California, while the other is based in Reno, Nevada, he said.

Neptune Aviation Services has positioned two of its P2V Neptune tankers, plus one of its modern BAe 146 jets—converted from passenger to tanker configuration–near the fire zone within the past several days, according to Dan Snyder, the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company’s chief operating officer.

To date, two of those aircraft, a P2V Neptune and the BAe 146, have flown more than 20 hours, dropping retardant on the fire.  The other P2V is in a standby mode.

“Each aircraft is deployed with two pilots and two mechanics,” Snyder noted. The P2Vs have been flying from Prescott, as well as Phoenix-Gateway Airport; while the BAe 146 is operating from Albuquerque.  “The BAe 146 is especially suited to firefighting in areas with steep canyon lands, and our crews are highly experienced with that,” he said.

Snyder added that the BAe 146 is using the latest tanking retrofit technology developed by Neptune Aviation Services.

“The capability to respond to a last-minute call-up for duty on a major wildland fire is yet again another reason to assure the future of a privately-operated and funded aerial firefighting industry in the US,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).  “The challenges posed by the kind of fire burning in northern Arizona, underscore the value of maintaining a well-trained, dedicated group of pilots and aircraft as a primary defense against wildland fires which are increasing in frequency and destruction, with lengthening fire seasons.”

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association which represents the privately operated aerial firefighting industry.

Private Aerial Firefighters Deploying Aircraft To San Diego County Fires

Private operators of fixed wing tankers and helicopters are deploying assets to San Diego County, California, to help fight a series of catastrophic, still uncontained fires which have destroyed nearly 10,000 acres, and an estimated 30 structures to date.

“Our focus has been on the Freeway Fire near Camp Pendleton since May 13, using a P2V and a BAe 146 tanker flying out of San Bernardino,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana.  Those two aircraft are among four tankers which Neptune has positioned in California, starting in February, under US Forest Service (USFS) legacy contracts.  As of May 15th, those two aircraft have flown 17 combined missions on the San Diego County fires.  The company’s other two tankers, both P2Vs, are based at Porterville and Santa Maria in California.

“Historically, late summer to early fall is the start of the fire season in California,” Snyder added.  “Contracts are usually not activated until mid-March to May, but we were put under contract in February, because of the high fire danger so early in the year in California and throughout much of the Southwest.”

In a related development, the USFS just awarded Neptune Aviation Services three additional line items under the company’s legacy contract, covering three BAe 146 tankers.  Two of those tankers commenced a mandatory availability period (MAP) of 160 days on May 16, while the third tanker begins a 120 day MAP on June 1.

“Although this action was not a direct result of the fires in Southern California, those fires are certainly an indication of the severity of the fire season which lies ahead,” noted Neptune Aviation Services Chief Executive Officer Ron Hooper.

Larry Kelley, Director Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho, reported that on May 15, the company dispatched a Bell 205 to the CALFIRE air tanker base at Ramona, California, under a USFS exclusive use contract.  “It was originally slated for deployment on May 28, but given the situation in Southern California, it was called up two weeks early,” said Kelley.

Mission assignments for the nine-passenger helicopter, which is based at Trinity, California, will be allocated at the discretion of the USFS, and include water dropping, cargo hauling, or firefighter transport

Kelley added that a Bell 205 at Salmon, Idaho, and a Bell 212 at Ogden, Utah, are both under USFS exclusive use contract, and are in a standby mode for possible dispatch to Southern California.

“The advanced preparations and early rapid deployment capability shown by the private aerial firefighting industry are proving invaluable to the efforts to contain the fires that have become increasingly destructive, especially in the urban-wildland interface in Southern California,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).  “There is every expectation that widespread fires of this kind will become the new normal, given climate change driven by global warming.  A viable, privately operated aerial firefighting force will therefore become an even more essential part of the fire protection toolbox.”

CHI Aviation and Neptune Aviation Services are both members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association that represents the privately operated aerial firefighting industry.