The private aerial firefighting industry is engaging in an ongoing battle to contain some of the two-dozen wildfires currently burning throughout California, including the largest, most destructive Rocky Fire, which, as of August 5, has burned over 68,300 acres of Lake, Yolo, and Colusa Counties near Clear Lake.
At the same time, the operators have given the US Forest Service (USFS) and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) high marks for their efforts to coordinate the deployment of aerial assets throughout the state during what is shaping up to be one of the worst fire seasons in the state’s history. In fact, according to CAL FIRE statistics, between January 1, and August 1, 2015, 100,000 acres had been consumed by 4,201 California wildfires—twice the average acreage during the previous five year period–prompting California Governor Jerry Brown, to declare a state of emergency.
“The USFS and CAL FIRE are doing their very best to coordinate and manage the deployment of aerial assets, which are stretched,” said Robin Rogers, Vice-President of Fresno-based Rogers Helicopters. “It’s business as usual—but there has been a lot of business. We pack up and go to wherever the firefighting agencies need us.”
Rogers Helicopters has had a Bell 212 helicopter operating on the Rocky Fire under a call when needed (CWN) contract with CAL FIRE since the fire commenced. The helicopter, Rogers explained, is engaged in water drops as well as firefighting personnel transport. Two additional Bell 212s are operating under USFS exclusive use (EU) contracts on fires in the El Dorado and Tahoe National Forests, along with two fixed-wing Turbine Commanders—flown where required—for coordination of aircraft during initial attack.
“With so many fires burning, trying to deploy assets to the location with the greatest need is probably like a world-class chess game,” said Columbia Helicopters’ Public Relations Manager Dan Sweet. “We have the greatest respect for the USFS and CAL FIRE. It appears that both agencies are doing an exemplary job of finding a balance between working on established fires and providing Initial Attack (IA) aircraft for areas that are still likely to burn.”
The Portland, Oregon-headquartered company has had a Columbia Model 234 Chinook flying on the Rocky Fire out of Clear Lake, since July 30, under a CWN contract with CAL FIRE. The helicopter has been flying between five and eight hours, per-day, dropping water from a 2,600-gallon SEI Bambi bucket.
Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho stated that “all agencies are working very well together,” putting available assets to their best use in order to contain the fires. Two of the company’s CH-47D Chinooks have been working on the Rocky Fire since August 1.
“The Chinooks are each averaging about seven hours daily dropping water from 2,000 gallon external buckets,” Kelly pointed out. “Both are flying for CAL FIRE under CWN contracts.”
Along with the Chinooks, CHI Aviation has had an S-61 under a CAL FIRE CWN contract, as well as six Bell medium helicopters under exclusive use contracts for the USFS.
According to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation, five of the Missoula, Montana-based company’s fixed wing air tankers–three P2Vs and two BAe 146s–are operating in California under USFS exclusive use contracts. A third BAe 146, he noted, is operating under a CAL FIRE exclusive use contract.
“Two of the P2Vs, along with one of the BAe 146s flying under the USFS contract, have been dropping retardant on the Rocky Fire since the day it started,” Snyder noted. “In fact, about half of our fleet is now working in California. The Rocky Fire is one of six fire complexes going on in the state that we have been working over the past week.”
As Snyder explained, a “complex” is when smaller fires merge into a single large one. He referred to the support and logistics infrastructure needed to support the tanker operations as “fairly robust.”
“We have seen no issues involving tanker base readiness. They have been well prepared, and prepared on time,” he said.
Snyder added that coordination with both Cal Fire and the USFS during the present fire emergency has “worked very well,” given the huge number of fires burning within one state. “It’s more normal to see numerous fires spread over a large multi-state area. What we are seeing in California is extraordinary,” he remarked.
CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Neptune Aviation, and Rogers Helicopters are members of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the interests of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before Congress, the US Forest Service, and other federal and state regulatory agencies with responsibility for natural resource protection.