Aerial Firefighters Winding Down An Active Western Wildfire Season

Aerial Firefighters Winding Down An Active Western Wildfire Season

30-Oct-2014 Source: AHS & AFA

Members of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Associaion (AHSAFA)  have generally reported greater utilization of fixed wing and helicopter assets, as highly destructive wildland fires raged across much of the Western US this year.

“The amount of flying we have done during this year’s fire season has already exceeded what we did during the comparable 2013 period,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer for Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services.  Using figures compiled through October 7, the operator of large, fixed wing tankers had flown almost 2,100 hours, compared with 1,982 by the same date in 2013.  In terms of aerial assets, Neptune had 10 airtankers—six P2V Neptunes, and four of its modified BAe 146s—actively engaged on fires this year, compared to six P2Vs and two BAe 146s deployed during the 2013 season.

At the time those figures were released, two of the company’s P2V Neptunes, and one modified BAe 146 were racking up additional hours, fighting the Dog Rock fire at El Portal, outside Yosemite National Park in California.  Including that fire, Snyder reported that Neptune Aviation Services has deployed aircraft on over 350 fires so far this year.

“The fire seasons in Washington, Oregon and California all were above normal, and started earlier,” Snyder remarked.  “The standout was California, where the fire season began earlier and stayed intense for the entire season, with the King Fire the most complex.”

Keith Saylor, Director of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, reported that the number of hours flown on Western wildfires has exceeded those from 2013, with additional aircraft at work.  “During the 2013 fire season, we had four helicopters operating on wildland fires in the west,” he said.  “But, this year, it’s five–one 234 Chinook and four Vertol model 107s.  Four are under USFS exclusive contracts and one Vertol is under a call when needed contract.”

Saylor called this year’s fire season “a lot more intense,” compared to last year, due to the “extremely large fires that were extremely problematic to bring under control.”  That, he said, was particularly true along the West Coast.

“A large part of the fire activity was in Oregon and Washington, but California was also very large,” Saylor remarked.  “Last year, the fire season came to an abrupt halt in early September, but this year, it continues to hang around, especially in California.  In fact, both California and southern Oregon are especially at risk for major fires for the remainder of the season.”

According to Mike Rotonda, Aerial Firefighting Manager for Erickson, Inc., in Portland, there was a large increase in fire activity in the company’s home state of Oregon, as well as in Washington and California, in 2014. “And, as (this year’s) Wildfire season narrows in focus, we must remain aware that the entire State of California is still in the grips of a historic drought,” he stressed. “There is high potential for extremely devastating wildfires—especially in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas of Southern California—until substantial rains occur.”

While the numbers are still being compiled, Rotonda reported that the company’s flight hours are running about the same as they did in 2013.  The company has deployed 11 of its Erickson S-64 Air-Crane Helitankers so far this season, with eight under Exclusive Use USFS contracts, and one each with the Los Angeles (city) Fire Department, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and San Diego Gas and Electric.

Rotonda noted that the 2014 fire season was more localized than last year.  “In 2013, there were large fires in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho and many other Western States.  But this year, the extreme drought in Oregon, Washington and California contributed to the most devastating wildfires in the West.  California is still extremely dry, with extreme fire conditions, especially if Santa Ana wind events develop this fall,” he said.

Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations at CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho, reported that this year, the company flew more hours on fires in California compared to 2013.  He attributed that to the state’s ongoing drought conditions, and the fact that there were no really large fires in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Utah this year.

CHI Aviation had three Bell 205A-1++, and one Bell 212 HP on firefighting missions, which, said Kelley, was the same number of helicopters as last year.  “We maybe flew less hours this year compared to last year—at this time.  However, with three of our aircraft being extended, we might fly the same amount of hours as we did last year.”

For Sonora California-based Intermountain Helicopter, the fire season was less active than in previous years, until the King Fire broke out in Northern California in September, according to company President Drew Njirich.  Intermountain operates a single Bell 212, which was released from a 120-day USFS exclusive use contract September 29.

“This year, we operated on 10 fires in Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and California, of which five or six were large,” said Njirich, who estimated that the helicopter flew about 220 hours during the 2014 fire season.  “Our mission, which is primarily initial attack, really didn’t begin until July.  We brought in the rappellers, and supported them with water drops.”

“The 2014 Western fire season showed, as has been the case in the past, the value of maintaining a privately operated aerial firefighting industry,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).  “As fire seasons only get longer and more destructive, we will continue to depend on this industry to help protect our wildlands, as well as lives and property.”

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Erickson, Inc., Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the aerial firefighting industry.

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