Aerial Firefighters Pitting Tankers And Helicopters Against Massive Wildfire Near Yosemite

Aerial firefighters continue to battle the huge Detwiler Fire, burning across much of Mariposa County, near California’s iconic Yosemite National Park. To date, the fire has burned over 119 square miles, destroyed some 130 structures, and resulted in mass evacuations throughout the central California community. It is currently 40 percent contained.
“We were among the first to deploy air assets to the fire when it broke out on July 16,” said Dan Snyder, the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company’s Chief Operating Officer.
At the time, the BAe 146 was joined by one of the operator’s four remaining legacy P2V Neptunes, flying under a US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contract. The P2V, which was working out of Fresno, has since been assigned elsewhere, Snyder explained. The BAe 146, however, continues to work the Detwiler Fire, under a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) exclusive use contract. “Under the contract, that tanker is considered a ‘California State Asset,” said Snyder. “It stays in California.”
In fact, the BAe 146 tanker is currently averaging 10 to 12 missions per day, dropping fire retardant, not only on the Detwiler fire, but on others which continue to plague much of central and southern California—such as the Whittier Fire near Santa Barbara—as directed by CAL FIRE. Snyder pointed out that thanks to its jet speed and endurance, it is also working on numerous unnamed fires, over a rough triangle bounded by Paso Robles, Fresno and Castle. The aircraft is supported by two mechanics in the field, and flown by a two-person flight crew.
Snyder added that this is the third year that Neptune Aviation Services has had one of its BAe 146 tankers under contract from CAL FIRE.
Also among the first responders with airborne assets, Rogers Helicopters has had a Bell 212 HP working on the Detwiler Fire out of Castle, California, under a USFS exclusive use contract. According to Robin Rogers, the Fresno-based company’s Vice-President, the helicopter was deployed from the Stanislaus National Forest, starting with the initial attack phase on July 16.
“The helicopter had been flying about seven hours each day, and doing about 100 daily water drops, until heavy smoke conditions caused flying to be reduced,” Rogers noted. “But it will remain on the fire until otherwise directed by the USFS.”
Rogers Helicopters has also provided a fixed wing, twin engine Turbo Commander in an air traffic management role on the Detwiler Fire since July 19. Repositioned from the Sierra National Forest, and flying out of the Fresno Air Attack base, it carries an air attack officer, who coordinates the activities of the helicopters and fixed wing firefighting aircraft. “It flies over the fire and directs those assets to go where needed,” Rogers said.
“California, and much of the West, are experiencing a late-starting, but explosive fire season, due to an abundance of dry vegetation, produced by heavy winter rains,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “As dry conditions continue to dominate much of the country, the modern fixed wing air tankers, and helicopters, operated by private industry, will be essential tools to combat increasingly devastating wildland fires, which have become a new normal.”
Neptune Aviation Services and Rogers Helicopters are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before federal agencies tasked with overseeing and managing government owned wildlands and natural resources.

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