Aerial Firefighters Rushing Aircraft To Contain Northern California Firestorm

Aerial firefighting companies are responding quickly to a series of rapidly moving fires which have ravaged Northern California’s fabled wine country, including the Napa Valley region, approximately 50 miles north of San Francisco.
The fires, which have been burning since late night Sunday, October 8, were sparked by winds clocked at 50 miles per hour. As of 9:00 AM on Wednesday, October 11, 22 fires have devastated parts of eight North (San Francisco) Bay California counties, consuming over 170,000 acres, and destroying more than 2,000 structures including private homes, hotels, and businesses. At least 17 people are confirmed dead.
Operators of fixed wing tankers and helicopters reported that aircraft were dispatched at barely a moment’s notice, at the request of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE).
“On Monday morning, October 9, CALFIRE requested that we send all of our available assets to California,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana. In response, he explained, the company has dispatched two BAe 146s from Missoula, along with two P2V tankers from their base at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The P2Vs were called up for the emergency, even though Neptune Aviation Services had officially retired its P2V fleet on September 30th.
“The P2Vs were still airworthy, and available for immediate deployment,” said Snyder. “Their retirement was not driven by mechanical or safety issues, but rather the decision by our main customer–the US Forest Service (USFS)–not to put any legacy tankers under contract after this fire season.”
Snyder added that the P2Vs were flown to Chico and the BAe 146s were flown to McClellan Airfield near Sacramento for duty under a call when needed CALFIRE contract. “We mobilized as many tankers in the shortest time possible. This call-up was completely unexpected. However, our team stepped up extremely quickly to help.”
The P2Vs and the BAe 146s each have a flight crew of two, with field support by two maintenance staff members, per aircraft. Snyder pointed out that for the past 20 days, four other BAe 146s have been based statewide in California, under USFS exclusive use contracts.
Helicopter operators also reported urgent requests from CALFIRE for aerial assets. “We dispatched a Bell 212, with a single pilot, along with a mechanic and fuel truck driver out of Fresno under a call when needed contract,” said Robin Rogers, Vice-President of Fresno-based Rogers Helicopters. “We were told to fly it to Santa Rosa, where we are to await further instructions—most likely water drops,” he added.
Portland, Oregon-headquartered Columbia Helicopters repositioned one CH-47Ds from Lancaster to Napa. The heavy, twin rotor aircraft are each equipped with 2,800 gallon capacity internal tanks for water or fire retardant dropping, according to Keith Saylor, Director, Commercial Operations. The company also dispatched a Columbia Model 234 Chinook and a CH-47D from its Aurora, Oregon, base to Napa. Those two helicopters were equipped with 2,600 gallon external bucket systems for water dropping.
The three helicopters were sent to Napa under a call when needed CALFIRE contract, Saylor reported. “A total of 30 staff members, including pilots, maintenance crews and fuel truck drivers will support their operations,” he noted. “The helicopters will be specifically engaged in fire retardant and suppression chemical drops.” He added that another CH-47D, currently located in Southern California, is ready for deployment to the wine country fires—if needed.
All of the aircraft, Saylor added, had been in a standby mode at the time that CALFIRE requested their services. “We are always in a state of readiness to support the agencies we work with. Those helicopters were in the air less than three hours after we got the call from CALFIRE.”
Josh Beckham, General Manager of Helimax Aviation in Sacramento, reported that all of his aircraft are on firefighting duty throughout California, including a CH-47D dispatched to the Tubbs Fire, near Santa Rosa, and currently working out of the Angwin-Parrett Airport. That aircraft, flying under a CALFIRE call when needed contract, will use a 2,000 gallon capacity external bucket for water dropping. Its field support consists of eight, including two pilots, a fuel truck driver and five mechanics.
“I continue to get calls from CALFIRE for additional aircraft for all the Northern California fires,” he said. “But all our assets are deployed.”
“The privately operated aerial firefighting companies continue to show their capability to respond on extremely short notice to what is proving to be a worst case scenario,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “As the industry upgrades to modern aircraft, it will continue to be prepared to react quickly to increasingly destructive fires over longer fire seasons, which are now the new normal.”
Columbia Helicopters, Helimax Aviation, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before federal and state agencies tasked with wildland management and fire protection.

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