Aerial Firefighting Industry Supports The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act

The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) applauds the governors of California, Oregon and Washington for their support of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 (S. 1875 and H.R. 3992).  That support, indicated in a letter signed by Governor Edmund G. Brown of California, Governor John A. Kitzhaber of Oregon, and Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, was sent to their States’ Congressional delegations in an effort to fast-track the legislation.

We also want to thank Senator Wyden, Senator Crapo, Senator Risch, Congressman Simpson and Congressman Labrador for their support of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

The bi-partisan legislation would set up a special $2.689 billion annual emergency fund to supplement the US Forest Service’s (USFS) annual firefighting budget.

“With the governors of three of the nation’s most fire-ravaged states on board, coupled with the support of the Senators and Congressmen this legislation has a better chance of being enacted into law and reaching the President’s desk,” said Tom Eversole, AHSAFA’s Executive Director.  “As an industry, we applaud their efforts on behalf of those who want to see the establishment of a more efficient funding mechanism for wildland fire suppression.”

Wildland firefighting costs, Eversole noted, have been funded on the basis of a 10-year rolling average.  “The result is that for years, the USFS has routinely exceeded its firefighting budget, which means it has had to transfer money from other programs, such as conservation, national park maintenance, and fire prevention measures, such as forest thinning,” he explained.  “A dedicated supplemental source of emergency funding, which would not impact other USFS programs, will create a more realistic and efficient approach to wildland fire suppression.”

Eversole also pointed out that while routine wildland firefighting would continue to be underwritten by the government in the normal way, it has become apparent that the new normal is increasingly destructive fires, which are becoming a year-round occurrence throughout much of the country—especially in the West—thanks to extreme drought conditions driven by climate change.

“As wildland fires are happening more frequently, more people in the urban-wildland interface are losing their homes and businesses.  AHSAFA believes that these fires are no different from an earthquake, flood, or other natural disaster, and urges Congress to provide the necessary funding to permit the USFS to continue fire suppression work, without having to divert money from other essential activities.”

AHSAFA is the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry.

Aerial Firefighters Respond To Early Season Pacific Northwest Fires

The aerial firefighting industry has deployed a significant number of aircraft and support personnel to the Pacific Northwest, as wildland fires have raged throughout Oregon and Washington.  The surge of activity includes extensive operations on the Carlton Complex fire, which has so far burned over 243,000 acres, and is considered Washington’s largest fire to date.

“Fires of this intensity usually do not happen in the Pacific Northwest before mid-to-late August, so we are operating there about 30 days earlier than usual,” said Ron Hooper, Chief Executive Officer of airtanker operator Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana.  Hooper reported that, of the company’s 10 large aerial tankers currently under USFS exclusive use contract, five–three P2V Neptunes and two BAe 146s–have been operating on fires in Oregon and Washington over the last 13 days, from bases in Redmond, Oregon, and Moses Lake, Washington.

“Most of that activity has been on the Carlton Complex, and the Chiwaukum fires–the two largest in Washington.”  He added that, so far, those aircraft have flown over 200 missions, dropped more than 500,000 gallons of fire retardant, and have averaged nine hours of duty time, per day.

Heavy lift helicopter specialist Columbia Helicopters has also responded to the sudden surge in fire activity, having deployed all portions of its fleet of aircraft currently available for firefighting.  That includes a Columbia Vertol 107-II, and a Columbia Model 234 deployed respectively to the Carlton Complex, and Chiwaukum fires.  Three other Columbia Vertol 107-IIs, are working on fires out of Chester, California, the Willamette National Forest at Detroit Lake, and Hood River, Oregon.  According to Dan Sweet, the Portland, Oregon-based company’s Public Relations Manager, two more Vertol 107-IIs were reassigned from logging operations in Canada to firefighting missions under contract to the British Columbia provincial government.

“Columbia Helicopters has had aircraft on contract to the US Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest since May of this year,” Sweet said.  “It has been a very busy fire season, although not an extraordinary one, except to say that we usually don’t see this much activity in Oregon and Washington until at least August.”

Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho, reported that the company has made four helicopters available to the US Forest Service under exclusive use contracts.  Of those, three are now actively engaged on fires.  One, a Bell 212 has been dropping water on the Carlton Complex fire for the past two weeks.  Two other aircraft, both Bell 205s, have also been busy, with one in Northern California on the Bully Fire, and the other on a wildland fire in Garden Valley, Idaho.  The helicopters have averaged four to seven hours of flight time daily.

“We also have a Bell 205 in a standby mode at Salmon, Idaho, because of the fire risk generated by a considerable amount of lightning strikes in the area.  It has been a steady fire season,” Kelley remarked.

“If you make a comparison between our activity this year, and what it was at the same time last year, we are much busier,” stated Rick Livingston, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California.  “Everyone we are talking with seems to be flying on these fires in the Pacific Northwest right now.”

Livingston reported that the company’s single Bell 212 is flying a variety of missions including water dropping as well as “rappelling” or transporting firefighters to the fire lines. Currently, the helicopter is based at Redmond, Oregon, flying under an exclusive use US Forest Service contract.

“Although these massive fires came much earlier than anyone anticipated, the privately operated aerial firefighting industry was ready with a quick and efficient response,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington.  “Our members have shown, once again, they are well prepared to respond to wildland fires, regardless of the timing of fire seasons, anywhere.”

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are all members of AHSAFA, the national trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry in Washington.