As Fire Season Approaches, Aerial Firefighters Adjust To Coronavirus Pandemic

The US aerial firefighting industry remains mission-ready for this year’s wildland fire season, despite the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on international travel according to the American Helicopter Service and Aerial Firefighting Association.

The US aerial firefighting industry remains mission-ready for this year’s wild land fire season, despite the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on international travel, as the industry increasingly seeks global market opportunities.

“Wildfires are going to happen, and we need to be ready to fight them,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana. “We still have crews in the hangar putting our tankers through winter maintenance.”

Neptune Aviation Services has nine BAe 146 regional jets converted to aerial tankers. Snyder added that annual training has been completed for most of the company’s flight crews, which are ready for immediate dispatch. That includes enough to cover for any pilots who might become sick.

“When our flight and maintenance crews are working on active fires, they eat in restaurants and stay in hotels. That is probably the biggest issue for us when dealing with the virus,” Snyder reported. “We are, of course, following the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), which have been applied to our staff in Missoula—and anyone out in the field. That includes encouraging headquarters staff to work at home, and for those in the field to let us know immediately if they feel sick. We want to assure our customers that the Coronavirus has not impacted our ability to support them if called to a wildfire event,” Snyder stressed.

The Coronavirus has had a definite impact on the international operations of Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters, according to Keith Saylor, the company’s Director of Commercial Operations. “Given the fact that we have firefighting and logistical support contracts in several countries, the recent border closings have made it difficult for our employees to travel,” he reported.

Columbia Helicopters supplies aerial firefighting services in the US as well as Chile and Australia and is supporting the oil and gas extraction industries in Papua New Guinea. The operator is also providing transportation services in Afghanistan under contract to the US Department of Defense.

For its US aerial firefighting services, the company’s three Columbia Model 234 helicopters are supported by a staff of 16. As Saylor explained, the company is “participating in the telecommunications solution” to help stop the spread of the Coronavirus. “Where possible, employees are working at home,” he noted. “But, for those who must be on-site, we have adjusted work schedules and minimized the number of those working on our aircraft at any one time.”

Nonetheless, Saylor stressed that Columbia Helicopters has “a sufficient number of employees in-house to cover for absent flight crews and mechanics—for short periods of time. “We want to assure people that the same high standards of readiness will continue to be provided, and safety will remain the number one priority for our employees and aircraft,” he said. “Columbia has ensured all of our employees are aware of the facts and are following the CDC guidelines to prevent the contraction and spread of all diseases as they work at home or abroad.”

At Helimax Aviation, only pilots and mechanics are expected to report for work as usual, with everyone else working at home, explained Josh Beckham, the Sacramento, California-based company’s General Manager. “We still have active contracts and are supporting our customers,” he said.

Currently, two of the company’s CH47D helicopters are on firefighting contracts in Chile, which has closed its borders due to the pandemic. This, reported Beckham, has delayed Helimax’s ability to send relief crews and has caused those already in the country to extend their end dates.

“We’re asking the pilots and mechanics in Chile to remain in their hotel if they get sick, but so far, nobody has become ill,” he stressed. “We’ve supplied extra hand sanitizers in our facilities and are promoting all measures to protect themselves from the virus.”

Travis Storro, Chief Operating Officer of Timberline Helicopters, Inc. in Sandpoint, Idaho, reported that the operator remains committed to its customers even under current business conditions.

“We are doing as much as we can by road and limiting air travel when possible to avoid unnecessary exposure,” said Storro. “Our maintenance crews are preparing our fleet for the coming fire season, and we continue to support our construction customers in the field to the greatest extent possible.”

In that regard, Storro explained that staffing levels generally fluctuate, based on seasonal and projected workloads. However, he added, if crews become ill and unable to work, Timberline Helicopters will cover with available staff. “But with the high skill level required to do precision external load operations and aerial firefighting, it’s not always easy to find people to cover in a pinch,” he cautioned.

According to Storro, Timberline Helicopters is progressing with the completion of an additional UH-60A+ to its fleet, along with operating its existing aircraft. “The hangar crew has been instructed to be diligent with personal and facility hygiene, and anyone who feels sick should not come to work. At this time, we have no reason to shut down any operations at our facilities at this time, as doing so may cripple our fire season readiness.”

“It’s difficult to tell what impact the current health emergency will have on our operation, at this time,” said Rick Livingston, owner of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California. “We are a very small operator, proceeding in a business as usual mode unless things become really drastic.” Intermountain Helicopter operates a single Bell 212, under call when needed contracts with the US Forest Service and Calfire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) for this season.

Columbia Helicopters, Helimax Aviation, Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services, Timberline Helicopters are members of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the interests of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the US Forest Service and other government agencies tasked with federal wildland management.

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