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.
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