The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is making improvements to its wildland firefighting helicopter program that are estimated to save taxpayers at least $300,000 annually, following the recommendations of a recently completed legislative audit.
DNR will retire four AH-1 â€œCobraâ€ helicopters from duty and has secured federal funding to replace them with two of the more common UH-1H â€œHueyâ€ models at no cost to the state. The move transitions DNRâ€™s helicopter fleet to all â€œHueyâ€ models and reduces the total number of helicopters from eight to six.
In a January report, Washington Stateâ€™s Joint Legislative Audit & Review Committee (JLARC) recommended that DNR analyze whether fewer helicopters could be used in its fleet. Data collected for the study on usage in recent fire seasons suggest that a six-helicopter fleet would allow DNR to protect people and forests from wildfires just as well as the current eight-helicopter configuration.
Permanent cost savings are created by reducing the number of helicopters and by standardizing maintenance and pilot training procedures by operating only one model of helicopter.
In addition, the JLARC study compared the costs of DNRâ€™s helicopter program with private contracting options. The JLARC report found that DNRâ€™s current costs from operating its own helicopters â€“ $2.2 million in 2009 â€“ are less than 50 percent of the cost of the least expensive, private contracting option evaluated.
â€œI am committed to a safe, effective and cost-efficient fire program for the people of Washington,â€ said Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, â€œOur aviation and wildfire professionals are second to none, and theyâ€™ve proved it again in making these recommendations to right-size the program at this critical time for our stateâ€™s budget.â€
The US Forest Service has identified a need to further examine the use of â€œCobraâ€ helicopters for water- and retardant-dropping missions, since the aircraft was originally designed for military attack purposes. An expensive and time-consuming engineering study would be necessary to fully validate the â€œCobras,â€ in spite of their stellar safety record and effectiveness in service with DNR. A study would not be able to be completed prior to the start of the 2011 wildfire season.
Preparations to construct, inspect and certify the new â€œHueysâ€ will be completed in time for the 2011 wildfire season, and contingency agreements will be put in place with federal agencies to make additional helicopter resources available if needed.
These improvements to the helicopter program follow on the heels of two years of balancing cost-cutting measures while improving the wildfire program. Over the last two years, DNR has implemented strategies that have saved $6.3 million dollars in additional spending.Â In 2009, despite responding to a higher-than-average number of fires, DNR crews also substantially reduced the number of acres burned compared to recent years.
DNR Is Stateâ€™s Firefighter
DNR is responsible for protecting 12.7 million acres of forested state, private and tribal lands from wildland fires. The primary objective of DNRâ€™s wildland fire suppression program is a rapid â€œinitial attackâ€ and control of wildfires when small. DNR operates firefighting helicopters to drop water or fire retardant and to deliver firefighters and supplies at otherwise inaccessible fire sites. Helicopters and other resources are made available to wildfires outside DNRâ€™s jurisdiction, such as on federal land, using cooperative interagency agreements.
DNR acquires firefighting helicopters through federal agencies using the Federal Excess Personal Property Program, which makes surplus military and other government equipment available to states for firefighting purposes. Surplus helicopter air frames can be leased for as little as one dollar, and the program readily makes parts and equipment available for the aircraftâ€™s ongoing maintenance requirements.
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