US Aerial Firefighters See Growing International Opportunities Amid Domestic Uncertainties

The privately operated US aerial firefighting industry is pursuing a growing international market, as devastating fires continue in Australia, and the fire risk throughout much of the southern hemisphere increases.

At the same time, uncertainties persist in the industry’s US markets, following a year in which there was comparatively little activity–compared to the devastating fires of 2018 in California–as well as this year’s late release of the contract tenders by the US Forest Service (USFS) for aerial firefighting services.

“The standing unknown for the US aerial fire fighters is what this year’s fire season will bring, coupled with an increasing amount of competition within the industry,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services, a fixed-wing tanker operator based in Missoula, Montana. “Contract bidding will be probably be fiercer, and more competitive than in prior years. And there is the still unresolved federal fire-fighting budgetary issue.”

Coupled with this, said Snyder, there is also a growing amount of fire activity in the southern hemisphere—not just in Australia, but in South America and South Africa. “Those markets are definitely included in our strategic planning, going forward,” he said.

In fact, Neptune Aviation Services has already worked in South America, having deployed one of its BAe 146 tankers to Chile two years ago.

Keith Saylor, Director, Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, reported having an external bucket-equipped Columbia Chinook Model 234 helicopter, which has been working in Australia, under a call-when-needed contact with that country’s National Aerial Firefighting Center (NAFC) since December. In addition two other Columbia 234 Chinook aircraft have been operating on fires in Chile, one of which is configured to carry firefighters as well as dropping water, under EU (exclusive use) contracts with the Corporacion Nacional Forestal (CONAF), starting in early December.

“This is the second time we have deployed aircraft to fight fires in Chile, and our first time in Australia,” Saylor explained. “This is indicative of a trend toward expanding opportunities for aerial firefighters in the global market.”

Also operating in Chile are two CH47D Chinooks, operated by Helimax Aviation of McClellan, California. Both have been flying there, under exclusive use contracts with CONAF and Forestal Mininco, starting in November and December, and supported by two pilots and five mechanics per aircraft. “We are projecting that they will be there through March of this year,” said Josh Beckham, Helimax Aviation’s General Manager.

Among other US aerial firefighters engaged in combating Australia’s wide-spread fires is Sandpoint, Idaho-based Timberline Helicopters. According to Travis Storro, the company’s Chief Operating Officer, two UH60 Blackhawk helicopters have been flying from a base at Scone, in the Australian state of New South Wales, since December 7. The bucket-equipped aircraft, he reported, to date have flown over 300 hours dropping water on the fires, averaging eight to 10 hours per day. Each aircraft is supported by two pilots and two mechanics, though given the amount of flying being done, a relief crew was recently dispatched.

“The only time those helicopters, which are flying under a call when needed contract with an Australian partner, have not flown is when heavy smoke made it impossible for pilots to see,” Storro said. “Australia is having a devastating fire year that is engulfing the whole continent. Our crews are glad to be able to help save as much life and property as we can. We will be there for as long as needed, unless we are awarded a USFS exclusive use contract that would require us to pull the helicopters out.” The bids, he added, were recently submitted to the USFS.

George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) stated that as the industry continues to take delivery of modern aerial firefighting equipment, “these assets will continue to be improving and dependable resources” not only for fire protection in the US, but increasingly beyond its borders.

“As cross-border opportunities continue to develop, the industry will be better able to plan for staffing and training of pilots and mechanics, even given the cyclical nature of fire seasons in the U.S.,” Hill remarked.

Columbia Helicopters, Helimax Aviation, Neptune Aviation and Timberline Helicopters are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based industry trade association representing the privately owned and operated aerial firefighting companies before the USFS and other federal agencies tasked with wildland management.

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