Aerial Firefighters Confronting Explosive Start Of Western Fire Season

Washington, DC, July 17th….Aerial firefighting companies are combating a huge swath of wildland fires, which have exploded across the Western United States within the past few weeks.
“Our crews are working around the clock to keep our aircraft available for the needs of the US Forest Service (USFS),” said Josh Beckham, General Manager, Helimax Aviation in Sacramento, California. “We anticipate a very busy next few weeks.”
Beckham reported that Helimax has five Bell 205A1++, one Bell 212 HP, and two CH-47D Chinooks operating in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, California and New Mexico under USFS exclusive use contracts. Those helicopters are being flown by a 21-pilot cadre, with field maintenance by a staff of 59. An additional CH-47D, and an Airbus H125 AStar are slated for deployment within the next few weeks.
Helimax has also dispatched two fuel trucks to the USFS Region 5 Fire Watch Cobra Program to support the fueling requirements of two USFS-owned Bell Cobra helicopters engaged in aerial supervision, mapping and reconnaissance missions.
Keith Saylor, Director of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, noted a recent fire surge in Arizona, but added that this has also been the case in Oregon and Montana.
Saylor reported that Columbia Helicopters has a Bambi bucket-equipped CH-47D currently operating out of Tucson, Arizona, as well as two CH-47Ds, modified with internal tanks, flying from Helena, Montana, and Rifle, Colorado. All three are under exclusive use contracts with the USFS. Two of the company’s Vertol 107s are in action under USFS call when needed contracts, at Colstrip, Montana, and The Dalles, Oregon.
The five helicopters are operating with a field staff of 41 including pilots, mechanics and fuel truck drivers.
“Our helicopters have been very busy since May,” Saylor stated. “I think the West will have a very active fire season, given the amount of fuel resulting from this year’s heavy winter rains.”
Rick Livingston, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Columbia, California, reported that his company, which operates a Bell 212 HP is also anticipating a busy fire season—especially during August and September. “August will be especially bad, if the combination of high heat and dry weather continues,” he said.
Since July 4, Intermountain Helicopter’s Bell 212 HP has been operating under a USFS exclusive use contract, out of Stead Airport, near Reno, battling the Sandstone Fire outside of Fernley, Nevada. “It has been doing mainly bucket (water dropping) work, as well as personnel transport,” Livingston explained. “The helicopter is supported by a pilot, mechanic and fuel truck driver.”
Livingston added that the company took delivery of a Bell 412, which is slated to go on a call when needed contract from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) by July 20. Intermountain, he said, is in the process of bringing the helicopter onto its operating certificate, along with avionics upgrades required to meet the agency’s contractual specifications.
The current fire season has not been confined only to the lower 48 States. Fresno, California-headquartered Rogers Helicopters now has three Bell 212 HPs working under exclusive use contracts for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. According to Robin Rogers, the company’s Vice-President, they are currently flying out of Delta Junction, McGrath and Soldotna, staffed by four pilots and four mechanics.
“We deployed helicopters to Alaska as early as April 20th of this year, and by mid-June, we had three additional Bell 212 HPs working under USFS contracts in California,” Rogers explained.
The company assigned six pilots, six mechanics and six fuel truck drivers to those aircraft.
“We anticipated a serious fire season, and were very proactive with hiring more staff well before the season began,” said Rogers. “Although this year’s fire season began a little later than usual, it has greatly accelerated as the vegetation produced by heavy rains in the Western US dried out.”
Fixed wing air tanker operator Neptune Aviation Services has “been all over the Western US this year,” reported Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana, company. “Our tankers are moving around the West daily, depending on fire activity changes.”
Snyder reported that Neptune Aviation Service’s fleet of eight operational BAe 146 jet tankers, plus its remaining four P2V Neptunes are currently at work. Except for one BAe 146 under a CALFIRE exclusive use contract, all are flying under exclusive use contracts with the USFS. The fleet at field level is being supported by 24 pilots, and 24 maintenance personnel.
“Our operations in the western US ramped up before July 1st,” Snyder said, adding that between June 29 and July 11, alone, the fleet had racked up nearly 600 missions totaling 415 flight hours.
“Even with all of the fires going on in the West, our flying is on par with what we have done in the past,” Snyder remarked. “The difference is there has been an explosion in new fire starts, just within the last two weeks. It’s unusual that so many would begin in such a short time frame.”
Columbia Helicopters, Helimax Aviation, Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are members of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association, the Washington-based trade association representing the interests of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the US government agencies concerned with protection of federal wildlands.

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