Aerial Firefighters Reacting To An Early Fire Season In Southern US

December 2…. At a time of the year when most aerial firefighters would be engaged in equipment maintenance and crew training in preparation for the next year’s wildland fires, an earlier than normal start to the fire season in the Southern US has put some of the industry back to work.
Fires have ranged across eight Southeastern states, destroying more than 119,000 acres. “Fires in that part of the country in mid-to-late November are unusual, but not unheard of,” said Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for Helimax Aviation in Boise, Idaho. “There have been a few instances at this time of year, but mostly in Kentucky when the bootleggers and marijuana growers deliberately set fires to keep law enforcement officers away from their stills and fields.”
One of Helimax Aviation’s CH-47Ds has been working out of the Oxford, Alabama, airport since November 12, Kelley reported. The helicopter, which had been at Rifle, Colorado since late October, is assisting firefighters in the Talladega National Forest with water drops, using a 2,000 gallon power fill Bambi bucket. Supported by two pilots, a flight engineer, four mechanics, and a fuel truck driver, the helicopter is currently operating under a US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contract, which has been on extension since October 27.
While much of Helimax Aviation’s business is focused on the Western US, Kelley noted that the company was well prepared to deploy a mission-ready helicopter over a long distance. “We are a service company with the ability to go where we are needed–and when–so it makes no difference to us where we are assigned,” he said.
Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters has two CH 47Ds equipped with 2,800 gallon capacity Simplex internal tanking for water and retardant dropping, operating under extensions of USFS exclusive use contracts on the Southeastern fires since mid-November. “The extensions commenced at the end of each helicopter’s 150 day mandatory availability period, which terminated in September and October,” said Keith Saylor, the company’s Director-Commercial Operations. “Both helicopters were doing water drops on the Creek Fire, in Virginia during Thanksgiving Week, but have since been repositioned to Tallahassee, Florida, where they are currently in a standby mode. Each CH-47D deploys with two pilots, five mechanics and two drivers of supporting vehicles.
“What we are seeing is an early start to the Southern fire season—which usually begins in January—because the area has been plagued by drought,” Saylor pointed out. “It has been many years since we have sent helicopters there in mid-November.”
He added that the unusual contingency has not been an issue for the operator. “Columbia Helicopters is prepared to work, year round, if needed,” he said. “That is due to our aggressive maintenance program, and the readiness of our assets throughout the year.”
In addition to attacks by helicopters, the fires in the Southeast are being aggressively fought by fixed wing tankers, as Dan Snyder, Chief Operations Officer for Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services, pointed out. Two of the company’s BAe 146 tankers have been operating on fires in Tennessee and Kentucky, starting in late October and early November.
“One tanker was repositioned to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from San Bernardino, and the other was flown from Missoula to Chattanooga, after a short stand-by period in Lake City, Florida, due to that state’s current high fire risk,” Snyder explained. “Both tankers have been flying from the Tri-Cities area on fires in Tennessee and eastern Kentucky, under post-season contract extensions.”
Snyder termed the operation “sporadic.” On some days, he said, there are as many as five to six hours of retardant dropping, and on others, the aircraft are kept in a standby mode. A four-person staff comprised of a pilot, copilot, crew chief, and a maintenance support person who is also responsible for driving the support vehicle supports each aircraft.
“This is the first time our BAe 146 tankers have operated this far east, and for this length of time,” Snyder said. “The aircraft has a range of over 1,500 nautical miles, and the ability to cover long distances at very high speed. This is especially advantageous in the eastern United States, because the fires are more wide-spread, and tanker bases are more distant from each other.”
Columbia Helicopters, Helimax Aviation, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association which represents the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the US Forest Service and other agencies with responsibility for wildland management.”