Late Season Southern California Fires Test Readiness Of Aerial Firefighters

With little advance notice, aerial firefighting companies demonstrated their rapid response capability to post-season fires throughout southern California, which have destroyed thousands of structures, and hundreds of thousands of acres across Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
As the fires, driven by the dry Santa Ana winds, spread, aircrews, mechanics and fuel truck drivers, who thought they would see no further fire activity this year, were once more deployed to support fixed wing tankers and helicopters—some literally within days of release from CALFIRE and US Forest Service (USFS) contracts. But despite the fact that the firestorm hit like a surprise attack, the air tanker and helicopter operators were well prepared.
“When high winds came through Northern California earlier this week, we prepared for the possibility of a fire event happening there, and alerted our crews in anticipation of that,” said Josh Beckham, General Manager of Helimax Aviation, Inc., in McClellan, California. “At the time we were called to fight the fires in Southern California, we were ready to move a helicopter where it was needed at the time the fires broke out.”
Beckham noted that Helimax deployed one of its CH-47D Chinook helicopters to a USFS helicopter base in Ramona, California. That helicopter was dispatched with a 2,000 gallon capacity external bucket for water drops, and is supported in the field by two pilots, four mechanics and a fuel truck driver. “Even though it’s late in the season, it is not unusual for us to be working in southern California at this time of year. In fact, we have had to do this over the past few years,” he said.
Keith Saylor, Director-Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, reported that two CH-47D Chinooks, one of which is equipped with a 2,800 gallon capacity internal tank, have been operating on the fires throughout southern California. He attributes readiness to the company’s FAA-approved continuous airworthiness maintenance program (CAMP).
“Instead of doing a phased approach to maintenance, which can keep the helicopter out of service for weeks, continuous inspection permits us to do a different part of a major phased inspection on a nightly basis, so the helicopter can be ready to go the next day,” Saylor noted. “As a result, the two aircraft were ready to go when requested, initially by CALFIRE.”
Each aircraft, Saylor explained, was dispatched with two pilots, a fuel truck driver, and five mechanics, who were working on other aircraft when called up. “The mechanics and the pilots were ready to go to work, even though they were told to report on a moment’s notice,” he said.
Robin Rogers, Vice-President, of Rogers Helicopters, reported the company always has helicopters in a mission-ready mode. “And, our pilots and mechanics are also prepared for immediate dispatch in case of an emergency of this kind,” he stated.
The Fresno-based operator currently has three of its Bell 212HPs working the fires, including two flying out of Santa Paula on the Thomas fire, the most destructive of the six fires in southern California, and still only 30 percent contained. “Each aircraft is deployed with a pilot, mechanic, and fuel truck driver, functioning in an initial attack role,” Rogers pointed out. “All are currently flying five to seven hours daily.”
Dan Snyder, Vice-President, Operations for Neptune Aviation Services, reported that the Missoula, Montana based large air tanker provider sent two of its BAe 146 tankers to southern California on December 5. One aircraft, was dispatched from Alamogordo, New Mexico, and the other from Missoula. “Both aircraft had only just completed USFS and CALFIRE exclusive use contracts days before when they were immediately sent to bases at Ramona and Porterville, California,” Snyder remarked.
The aircraft, he explained, were activated within six hours of call-up by CALFIRE, as were pilots and maintenance technicians. “The mechanics had actually been working on other aircraft in our maintenance facility at Missoula, while the pilots were not scheduled to fly at the time,” Snyder noted. “But everyone was willing and able to go out and had a very strong desire to support the mission.” The aircraft have flown in excess of 27 missions on multiple fires since December 7.
“Typically, Southern California has a Santa Ana event at this time of the year, but it came a little later than we had planned for,” said Snyder. He also pointed out that this was the company’s first major tanker operation since the retirement of its last operational P2V Neptunes in September.
“The unprecedented fire events throughout California this year have been a huge challenge to the aerial firefighting community, but a challenge that the privately operated firefighters were well prepared to meet,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “As fire seasons get longer in California–and throughout much of the country–the operators have continued to demonstrate their capability to react to a contingency, even on the shortest notice.”
Columbia Helicopters, Helimax Aviation, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association which represents the interests of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before federal and state agencies overseeing wildland management and natural resource protection.

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.