Aerial Firefighters See Longer Than Normal Florida Fire Season

Washington, D.C., May 24, 2017….Aerial firefighting companies could be in for longer deployments in Florida than in previous years, due to widespread fire events extending from the state’s northern border to its central and southern regions.
As the most notable case, two operators continue to have aircraft positioned within close proximity of the West Mims Fire, which has burned over 152,000 acres in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the Georgia/Florida line. The fire, which is attributed to a lightning strike, is just 40 percent contained, and continues to smolder and spread.
“Neptune Aviation Services has been operating in Florida, on a continuous basis, since February of this year,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana-based fixed wing tanker operator. “We started operations on the West Mims fire when it broke out on April 6. At the time, in fact, we were the only provider of large, fixed wing tankers operating in Florida.”
Snyder reported that, at the height of the activity on the West Mims fire, four of the company’s modern BAe 146 tankers were flying out of Lake City, Florida–about a 15 minute flight from the fire. “Over a five-day period in mid-May, each tanker was averaging 10-14 retardant dropping missions—per day,” he remarked.
With a slowing of action on the West Mims fire because of recent rains, Neptune, at the direction of the US Forest Service, has moved two of the tankers from Lake City to Punta Gorda, located on Florida’s southwest coast. This, explained Snyder, was done to preposition the aircraft closer to the state’s southern and central fires, in case they are needed. The tankers, which are operating under USFS exclusive use contracts, are each supported by two pilots, and two mechanics.
“This is one of the longest—if not the longest—uninterrupted deployment periods for our tankers in Florida in our company’s history,” Snyder added. “We are prepared to keep them there for as long as they are needed.”
Columbia Helicopters is also actively involved with firefighting in Florida. As Keith Saylor, Director, Commercial Operations for the Portland, Oregon based company explained, two of Columbia’s former military CH-47D, twin rotor helicopters are now positioned at Lake City. “We had one positioned there in April, and that was joined by the second one, in May,” he reported.
Both helicopters have been modified with a 2,800 gallon capacity internal tank for water dropping, and each is operating under a USFS exclusive use contract, and supported by two pilots and eight ground crew personnel, which includes mechanics and vehicle drivers.
“We have actually been working on a number of fires in the vicinity of the Florida-Georgia border,” Saylor explained. “But as of late, our work has concentrated more on the West Mims fire, which is starting to wind down—at least with regard to the heavy activity we had been seeing. We continue to support the firefighters on the West Mims fire, as needed, but we are also standing by to provide initial attack services on any new fires that might occur, not only in Florida, but throughout the USFS southern region, if assigned.”
“Climate change and dry weather patterns are increasing the length of fire seasons, not only in Florida, but throughout the country,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “Privately owned and operated aerial firefighting companies are continuing to demonstrate their capability to react to the new realities of longer, more destructive fire seasons, no matter where and for how long.”
Columbia Helicopters and Neptune Aviation Services are both members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the interests of the privately owned and operated aerial firefighting industry before the federal government agencies tasked with overseeing wildland management and natural resource protection.