Aerial Firefighters Key Part of Controlling California Wildfire Outbreak

Aerial firefighting operators are responding quickly to an unexpected outbreak of multiple, huge fires throughout Northern and Southern California, following what had been a relatively slow fire season.

“This is the first time this year that 100 percent of our deployable fleet is operating at any one time, and all are in California,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana. The company, he explained, has a total fleet of nine BAe 146 regional airliners which have been modified for aerial firefighting with 3,000 gallon tanks for retardant dropping. Of the nine, six are ready for dispatch, while the remaining three are undergoing scheduled maintenance.

As Snyder explained, four BAe 146s are working under California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) call when needed contracts, and flying from McClellan, Paso Robles, Porterville, Ramona and Santa Rosa. The other two are at Redding and Chico, flying for the US Forest Service (USFS) under exclusive use contracts. “Our main focus is the Kincade fire in Sonoma County, which is the largest in the state right now,” he said.

Snyder noted that each aircraft is dispatched with two pilots and two mechanics, and is attacking the fire with as many as eight fire retardant drops—accounting for seven flight-hours per day. “Throughout the fire, anywhere from one to three of the BAe 146s are in the air daily. Our other three aircraft in California are being held for any other emergency that might come along,” he reported.

Snyder also pointed out that with half of its tankers working under call when needed contracts, each aircraft can be airborne in less than 24 hours. “For the first time since the devastating fires of 2017, Neptune has positioned itself to assist the USFS and CAL FIRE through the rest of the year, and into January, if needed,” he said.

Also working on the Kincade fire, Rogers Helicopters has deployed a Bell 212 under a CAL FIRE call when needed contract. That helicopter has been flying both water dropping and initial attack missions, ferrying firefighting crews and equipment from a base at Boggs Mountain, since the fire’s onset on October 25, according to Robin Rogers, Vice President of the Fresno-based operator.

Rogers pointed out that two more Bell 212s—respectively stationed at the Stanislaus National Forest, and El Dorado National Forest–are on standby for initial attack, if needed, under USFS exclusive use contracts. Each Bell 212 is supported by a pilot, mechanic and fuel truck driver.

Rogers predicted that any additional fires in California will be generated by high wind events. “We are ready to fly year-round no matter how long the fire season lasts,” he said.

One S64 helicopter, operated by Erickson, Inc., is currently working on the Getty fire in southern California under an exclusive use contract with the Los Angeles Fire Department. According to Alex Woolsey, the Portland based company’s Fire Director, the helicopter, is operating out of Van Nuys Airport, and is supported by two pilots, a crew chief, two mechanics and one fuel truck driver. Equipped with a fixed tank, capable of dropping up to 2000 gallons, the S64 has been flying up to eight hours daily, on fire retardant and water-dropping runs.

“We have another S64 at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, California, which has been engaged on fires throughout the year under an exclusive use contract with San Diego Gas & Electric,” Woolsey said. “California is now definitely the hot spot. Anytime the Santa Anna winds occur, as they are now, the potential for devastating wildfires increases greatly.”

Due to the unpredictability of these late season fires, sparked by a combination of very dry conditions and shifting high winds, a number of helicopter operators are in a standby mode, ready to fly on a moment’s notice should fires escalate. “Right now, three of our helicopters are prepositioned, and ready to go,” said Keith Saylor, Director, Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon.

Specifically, he pointed out, two of the company’s CH47D Chinook helicopters, equipped with internal tanks, are on USFS exclusive use contracts—one in Santa Maria, California, and the other in Durango, Colorado. A third CH47D, which operates with a Bambi bucket, is positioned in Ukiah, under a CAL FIRE call when needed contract. Each helicopter has the support of two pilots, five mechanics and a fuel truck driver.

“We are continuing to be available for the various fire protection agencies, ready to assist with any further needs on any existing fires, or in an initial attack role for any new fire starts,” Saylor noted.

He added that, so far, this fire season, the company’s flying is down by about a third compared to the 2018 fire season. However, given current fire activity, that gap is likely to close, Saylor reported.

Along this line, McClellan, California-based Helimax Aviation has made two of its CH47D Chinooks, currently stationed at the company’s headquarters, available for immediate dispatch for CAL FIRE, under call when needed contracts. “We did not anticipate the current fire activity we are seeing right now in California, but we are always prepared, just in case,” stated Josh Beckham, the company’s General Manager. “I believe we are going to see more fires in Southern California as the fall progresses.”

Columbia Helicopters, Erickson Aviation, Helimax Aviation, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are all members of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before government agencies tasked with federal wildland management.

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