The US aerial firefighting industry has experienced one of its slowest fire seasons to date with significant reductions in flight-hours compared to recent years. Nonetheless, a number of operators have seen a ramp-up in activity due to a spike in fire events since September, with major fires in Southern California and Colorado.
For example, three of Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services’ BAe 146 tankers have been dispatched to the Saddle Ridge fire in Los Angeles County with two operating under call when needed contracts (CWN) from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), and one under a US Forest Service exclusive use (EU) contract. Two additional BAe 146s have also been working on smaller fires in Central California, according to Dan Snyder, Neptune Aviation Services’ Chief Operating Officer.
Powered by four Honeywell ALF 502 jet engines, the aircraft, built originally as short-haul regional airliners, were fitted with 3,000 gallon capacity tanks for fire retardant dropping. Supported in the field by two mechanics and two pilots, per aircraft, the three tankers were deployed to the Saddle Ridge fire from the California cities of Lancaster, San Bernardino and Santa Maria. One of those tankers was one of two originally dispatched to the Decker fire in Colorado in early September. Currently, Neptune Aviation’s pilots are on duty as much as 14 hours per day.
“Although we have operated on multiple fires in California and throughout the Great Basin states, fire activity has been well below the 10-year average in terms of acres burned,” said Snyder. “This year, we have seen nothing of the size and complexity of the fires of previous years.”
Aerial firefighting helicopter operators have also been impacted by this year’s reduced fire activity. “This year, to date, I have had just two assignments—both under CWN contracts–one in Shasta and Siskiyou counties in Northern California for CAL FIRE, and the other in Washington for the USFS,” said Rick Livingston, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California. “Respectively, the duration was a month, and a week.”
“Intermountain Helicopter operates a single Bell 212. In both California and Washington,” said Livingston; the company airlifted “module” teams of 4 to 5 people, and their equipment to fires for initial attack. “Module transportation is where we fit very well,” said Livingston.
At this time, the company is in a standby mode for CAL FIRE. “We’re now at the time of the year when you have the strong northwest winds, and a fire, driven by those winds could break out any time—tomorrow morning or as late as Thanksgiving,” Livingston noted. “It’s a matter of weather.”
Brian Jorgenson, Vice-President of Timberline Helicopters in Sandpoint, Idaho, reported that earlier this month, he deployed two Kaman K-MAX helicopters on small fires in California under USFS EU contracts. Specifically, the helicopters, each supported by a pilot, mechanic, and fuel truck driver, are engaged in water drops. The crews, he said, are on a 12-day rotation, so there are two crews per helicopter.
“Depending on the needs of the fire, we could fly as much as eight hours in a 14 hour duty day—or do no flying at all,” Jorgenson explained. “In my opinion, for this year, the fire season is basically over.”
Josh Beckham, General Manager of Helimax Aviation in McClellan Park, California, reported that one of company’s CH 47-D Chinook helicopters has been dropping water under a CAL FIRE CWN contract on the Briceburg fire since October 7, out of Mariposa, California; while a second has been engaged in water dropping on the Decker fire, out of Salida, Colorado, since Labor Day, under a USFS EU contract. Each helicopter is supported by two pilots, five mechanics, and a fuel truck driver, and is flying four to six hours per day. A third CH 47-D, said Beckham, is on standby.
“Mostly, we’ve been engaged on multiple small fires, mainly in Idaho and Utah. However, there is the potential for more fires in Southern California for the rest of the year,” Beckham remarked.
Fresno, California-headquartered Rogers Helicopters is also among those flying on the Briceburg fire. “We have had a single Bell 212 on that fire—flying out of Mariposa—since early October, under a USFS EU contract,” explained company Vice President Robin Rogers. The helicopter, which is flown by a single pilot and supported by a mechanic and fuel truck driver, has been averaging about four hours daily, dropping water. Two additional Bell 212s are currently in Red Bluff, California, standing by under CAL FIRE CWN agreements.
Rogers said that the company was most active this year under a CWN contract from the State of Alaska Division of Forestry, which employed two of Rogers Helicopters’ Bell 212s. While both helicopters were released after 45 days, the operator “did not come close” to the amount of flying in recent years.
“It’s a pretty good guess that we are down by 50 percent,” noted Rogers.
Currently, Rogers Helicopters has two Bell 212s on USFS EU contracts, plus two additional 212s, and a Bell 206 L3 Long Ranger which are available–if needed–by any firefighting agency. While unable to predict where the remainder of the fire season will go, Rogers pointed out that the USFS extended its EU contracts with the company through the end of October. “In their judgement, weather conditions are still fire prone in California,” he said.
In fact, California is also Erickson Inc.’s major focus at this time, with Southern California having the highest potential for large, devastating wildfires, according to Alex Woolsey, Director, Fire Division for the Portland-based operator of S-64 Air Crane® Helitankers. “Any time California experiences a Santa Ana or Diablo wind event, wildfires are much more active, with the potential to reach devastating levels,” Woolsey said.
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