USA – Aerial firefighting industry executives are concerned that cutbacks in exclusive use contracts and greater reliance on call-when-needed contracts by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) could severely compromise the availability of fixed-wing tankers and helicopters at a time of longer, more destructive fire seasons.
Exclusive use contracts are essentially a retainer, normally paid over a period of 120 to 150 days from late spring to late fall, by the USFS on a per-aircraft basis — whether or not the aircraft are deployed on a fire. In return, the operator is obligated to have those aircraft immediately available for dispatch at the request of the Forest Service.
In contrast is the call-when-needed contract, under which companies are paid only on a per-incident basis, and unlike the exclusive use agreement, can turn down a request.
“Due to budget cuts, the Forest Service is opting for more call-when-needed contracts,” said George Hill, executive director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “Given the insecurity inherent in call-when-needed agreements, many operators will be forced to pursue other work, and unable to make their aircraft available to the Forest Service.”
For 2018, the USFS has awarded exclusive use contracts covering 13 fixed wing tankers — down from 20 last year. Four of those tankers are owned and operated by Neptune Aviation Services. As Ron Hooper, the Missoula, Montana-based company’s chief executive officer explained, during 2017, the company had 11 tankers under USFS exclusive use contracts, including its last four operational P2V Neptune legacy aircraft — now retired.
While Hooper noted that the USFS has told operators that another 16 tankers could be called up for duty under call when needed, he pointed out that this creates a sense of uncertainty for the industry.
“Starting in 2010, we began to acquire and modify a fleet of BAe 146 regional airliners, based on what we understood to be the Forest Service’s long term requirements,” he said. “We made a huge capital investment from our own funds to do that, because it was our expectation that most of those tankers would be operated for years to come under exclusive use contracts.
“Our question now is, how can we recoup our investment in these aircraft without long term exclusive use commitments, which were the whole basis of our planning and investment?”
Since an air tanker’s design is limited to fighting fires, Hooper predicted that as exclusive use contracts diminish, more operators will be forced to seek other revenue generating opportunities, such as with state fire protection agencies, or firefighting entities in international markets. At the same time, he cautioned, tanker operators may not be able to hire or retain the aircrew and maintenance staff they need, contingent on call when needed contracts.
“This will constrain aircraft availability that much more,” Hooper added.
Robin Rogers, vice president, of Rogers Helicopters in Fresno, California, echoed these concerns. He explained that an aerial firefighting business model, based on call-when-needed contracts, assumes a major risk.
“If you have to rely on call-when-needed contracts, you may do very well in a normal fire year, but you will struggle in years when there is not a lot of fire activity,” he said.
But as Rogers pointed out, in a below-normal fire year, there may not be other available jobs, especially for operators of the so-called “Type 2” helicopters — the medium sized models such as the Bell 205 or Bell 212.
“On average, the Forest Service has about 34 Type 2 helicopters under exclusive use contracts annually,” he said. “The problem is, there is really not enough work — other than firefighting — to support that many, nationally, if they were to be contracted call when needed.”
At Helimax Aviation, two of the company’s six CH-47D helicopters are currently under exclusive use contracts from the Forest Service, with another two under call when needed.
“Helimax is constantly looking to maximize its usage of aircraft under exclusive use contracts throughout the year to minimize the risks associated with ad-hoc and call-when-needed contracts,” said Josh Beckham, general manager of the Sacramento-based company. “If only call-when-needed contracts were available, operators would have to look for other revenue streams which would deny the Forest Service of very valuable assets such as the CH-47D.”
Brian Jorgenson, vice president of Sandpoint, Idaho-based Timberline Helicopters, also stated that his company, which currently has two Kaman K-MAX heavy lift helicopters on exclusive use contracts, would find it challenging to work on a call-when-needed basis.
“I would not be able to go into the commercial market, and tell a customer that I could work for him for as long as the Forest Service doesn’t call,” he explained. “The customer would want an uninterrupted commitment. Along with that I could not afford to employ people on the chance that the Forest Service might call. It definitely increases the unknowns, and for the USFS, it increases their costs, because call-when-needed contracts are more expensive.”
Beckham noted that three years ago, the Forest Service contracted for 34 Type 1 helicopters, but by 2017, that was reduced to 28 — an 18 percent reduction.
“The Forest Service has no backup plan in place, especially given an increased trend with the number of fires and the destructive nature of those fires. Yet, the USFS is cutting back,” he said.
Helimax Aviation, Neptune Aviation Services, Rogers Helicopters, and Timberline Helicopters are members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-headquartered trade association which represents the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies with responsibility for wildland management and fire protection.