While the fire season throughout much of the US does not begin until early spring, the private aerial firefighting industry is—even now–battle-ready for what could be another tough year, thanks to ongoing dry conditions in the Western states.
“I think there is going to be far more fire activity in 2015, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, which is a lot drier than it was last year at this time,” said Drew Njirich, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California. “Although California will also be an area of focus, every part of the west, including Idaho and Montana, could be severely impacted by this year’s fire season.”
Intermountain Helicopter’s single Bell 212 medium helicopter, which is under an Exclusive Use (EU) contract with the US Forest Service (USFS) for the next three years, underwent maintenance and modification work during the winter months to assure its availability for its multi-mission work in support of ground-based fire firefighters, such as ferrying of personnel and supplies to the fire lines. As an additional safety measure for the upcoming fire season, the company installed a Garmin GDL-69 satellite link weather system in order to monitor weather conditions in areas where there is no cellphone coverage. “Being linked to a satellite system means that we can monitor the weather wherever we are, in real time,” Njirich explained. “When it comes to safety, we try to stay ahead of the game.”
At Rogers Helicopters, winter maintenance is nearing completion. “We always prepare for a high level of firefighting, even if it turns out that the fire season is not as severe as those in the past,” said Robin Rogers, Vice-President of the Fresno, California-based company.
Two of the company’s Bell 212s are being readied for operation under USFS EU contracts, with an additional three Bell 212s committed to EU contracts with the State Of Alaska Department Of Forestry.
“Another Bell 212, and a Eurocopter AS 350B2 A-Star will be under USFS Call When Needed (CWN) contracts,” Rogers noted. “In addition, we have two fixed wing Rockwell 690A twin turboprop Commanders that will be operated in air traffic management roles during aerial firefighting for the USFS.”
Those aircraft will be manned by a cadre of 14 pilots, four of whom will be assigned to the Commanders. All of the pilots are currently undergoing recurrent training, said Rogers, who explained that all of the company’s fixed wing and helicopter training is carried out in house.
Keith Saylor, Director Of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, reported that the operator has just submitted a proposal to make 19 helicopters available under state and federal CWN contracts. Those aircraft will include former US Army CH47D helicopters, acquired by Columbia last year, as well as Columbia Model 107s and Model 234s. At the same time, three of the company’s Model 107s and one Model 234 will be commencing the final year of a four year USFS EU contract beginning in May.
“We put our aircraft through some contractually mandated avionics changes, along with our routine winter fleet maintenance,” Saylor pointed out. “We also carried out initial training of the pilots we newly hired, along with recurrent training for those already on staff.” Columbia Helicopters, he added, is anticipating a “moderate to severe” fire season for the Pacific Northwest.
Neptune Aviation Services, the largest operator of fixed wing aerial tankers, expects to wrap up all heavy maintenance in May, according to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company. “Since last fall, we will have invested nearly 18,000 man-hours to prepare our aircraft for the 2015 fire season, which is about average for each year,” he said.
Currently, Neptune Aviation Services has seven aircraft under EU contracts with the USFS for 2015, which includes six P2V Neptunes and one BAe146 jet. However, Snyder stressed that other aircraft are available as needed. In fact, by the end of this year, the operator expects to have a fleet of seven BAe146 jets reconfigured for aerial firefighting, in addition to its legacy fleet of P2Vs.
“We began flight crew training on both the Neptunes and BAe146s starting in January of this year,” Snyder reported. “That includes ground school, simulator, in-aircraft training; as well as mission specific training.” The BAe146 simulator training, he explained, is conducted in Australia and in the United Kingdom. “We use a generic simulator for the P2V instrument training,” said Snyder.
Although he did not want to speculate about the coming fire season, Snyder did point out that the company has received inquiries from the USFS about deploying some of the contracted aircraft early due to concerns about the fire potential in California. The first aircraft, in fact, has been mission ready since March 5, with deployment of the remaining five by May 30.
Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are members of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry.