The nation’s aerial firefighting industry is in a rapid response mode, as the explosive start-up of this year’s wildland fire season continues to scorch much of the Western US.
“The large number of wildland fires this early in the Western states is almost unprecedented,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “In some cases, aerial firefighters are deploying more flight crews and field support staff than usual, particularly this early.”
As of June 23, there were 19 incidents classified as active “large fires” occurring in the US, mostly in the western states, according to statistics from the US Forest Service (USFS). The agency defines a large fire or incident as a wildfire of 100 acres or more impacting a forest or “timber area,” or a wildfire of 300 acres or more occurring in grass or sage. Currently, Arizona and California are the major hot spots, with five and four major fires, respectively.
“For the first time in our company’s history, all 12 of our tankers—under USFS or California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) exclusive use contracts—are in the field,” reported Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer for Missoula, Montana-headquartered Neptune Aviation Services. “We sent five of our BAe 146 tankers to the Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County, California, on the day it started, with operations out of a USFS tanker base at Santa Maria. In addition, our sixth contracted BAe 146 operated out of four different tanker bases in Arizona and New Mexico on fires in those states within a week.”
Snyder added that two of the company’s six P2V Neptunes are currently working on fires in New Mexico, out of Albuquerque, while the remaining four are flying on fires from bases in Cedar City, Utah; Broomfield, Colorado; and Rapid City, South Dakota. The BAe 146 and P2V tankers are each supported by a captain, first officer, and a maintenance staff of two. An additional P2V and BAe 146, in maintenance in Missoula, and will be ready to replace any tankers as they return for maintenance.
Helimax Aviation is also experiencing heavy demand for aerial firefighting services, according to Larry Kelley, the company’s Director of Fire Operations in Boise, Idaho. “Within the past three weeks, we have dispatched eight helicopters–six medium-size Bell 205A-1++s and a Bell 212 HP–to major fires throughout the West,” Kelley noted. The helicopters, which are operating out of bases in Utah, Oregon, California and Idaho, are equipped with 270, or 340 gallon Bambi buckets for water dropping. Each is supported in the field by a pilot, mechanic, and fuel truck driver.
Two of Helimax Aviation’s heavy lift CH-47D Chinooks are also at work, with one operating on a fire outside of Tucson Arizona , and another based at La Grande, Oregon was dispatched to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Those helicopters, said Kelley, are equipped with 2,000 gallon Bambi buckets for water dropping, and each is supported by a pilot, copilot, flight engineer, five mechanics and a fuel truck driver. Kelley added that all eight helicopters are flying under USFS exclusive use contracts.
Four of Columbia Helicopters’ aircraft are also engaged on multiple fires throughout the West. Jeremy Cameron, the Portland, Oregon-based company’s Command Pilot/Fire Operations Manager, reported they include two CH-47Ds, equipped with newly certified Simplex Aerospace 2,800 gallon internal tanks. One is assigned to the Cedar Fire near Show Low, Arizona, and the other at the Beaver Creek fire near Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
“The Simplex Aerospace tanks are removable, allowing crews to switch to conventional water buckets, if requested by the Forest Service,” Cameron explained, adding that Columbia Helicopters is preparing to release an additional CH-47D as the fire season progresses.
Along with the CH-47Ds, a Columbia Model 234, and a Columbia Vertol 107 II—each equipped with external buckets–are respectively working on the North Fire, southwest of Socorro, New Mexico, and the Short Fire, northwest of Gillette, Wyoming. All are operating under USFS exclusive use contracts. Approximately 35 Columbia Helicopters employees are actively supporting those aircraft in the field, with the number slated to increase with the deployment of an additional helicopter to Hamilton, Montana, in July.
Robin Rogers Vice-President of Fresno, California based Rogers Helicopters reported that the company is currently supplying command and control aircraft in support of aerial firefighting. “Two of our Rockwell 690 turbo Commander twin turboprops have been working in that role for the past 60 days throughout California, Arizona and New Mexico, under USFS exclusive use contracts,” he explained. “We also have a Bell 212 that has been moving around central California, for fire (support) operations, for the last three weeks,” explained Rogers. “Two additional Bell 212s, and a Eurocopter B2 AStar are in a standby mode under USFS and CalFire call when needed contracts.”
Timberline Helicopters is preparing its two Kaman K-1200 K-Max heavy lift helicopters to commence operations under USFS exclusive use contracts, starting July 15. The helicopters will be based in Weed and Placerville, California, for 90 days each, according to Travis Storro, Chief Operating Officer of the Sandpoint, Idaho, based company. The helicopters will engage in aerial firefighting with 660 gallon Powerfill Bambi buckets, and if required, haul supplies to fire fighters on the ground, using sling loads.
“We are upgrading audio and radio communication systems, and replacing any components with low time remaining, in order to avoid days of down time during the contract period, he said.”
Storro also pointed out that the company received restricted category certification to operate one of its newly-acquired Black Hawk helicopters for aerial firefighting, under call when needed contracts with California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. “As with the K-Max, the Black Hawk will be involved with bucket work and transporting supplies in support of USFS ground crews.”
Columbia Helicopters, Helimax, Neptune Aviation Services, Rogers Helicopters, and Timberline Helicopters are members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighters before various government agencies directly involved with wildland management and fire protection.