USA — Privately operated aerial firefighting companies are deploying considerable resources to combat the unprecedented fire storms raging across Central and West Texas. Texas, in fact, accounts for nearly all of the 2.4 million total acres destroyed by wildland fires across the US so far this year, according to the federal National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise.
Some operators have shifted aircraft from as far away as the East Coast. “We have a Bell 206-4 helicopter that was based in Abingdon, Virginia, but operating out of Mineral Wells, Texas, since just before Easter,” said Stuart Taft, chief pilot for Hillcrest Aircraft Company in Lewiston, Idaho. “It was used on the Wildcat fire, which burned 159,300 acres, and is now on the 9,000 acre Oasis fire.” Using an external bucket for water drops, it’s flying seven days a week, Taft explained.
Norm Cook, chief pilot for Aero Union Corporation in McClellan, California reported that Texas has been the company’s major area of concentration since late March. “We expect that the fires will be a problem there until the beginning of the monsoon season in June, when moist air comes in from the Gulf and increases the humidity and brings rain,” he said.
Aero Union has deployed four Lockheed P3 Orion tankers, each averaging four trips–or 10-12 hours of daily operation–out of Abilene, Texas. The fixed wing aircraft are equipped with a 3,000 gallon, gravity flow, and computer controlled tank for containing and dispersing fire retardant. Cook said that to date, the aircraft have been used on three fires in the Midland-Odessa and Fort Stockton areas, mostly over rangeland.
“The tankers fly as long as winds do not exceed 35 knots. Above that, the drops are less are effective.”
He added that Texas is especially challenging for aerial firefighters due to the low altitude drops. “It’s what we call a wired state. There are a lot of tall antennas, and supporting guy wires. That’s a hazard for low flying aircraft, and is unique to Texas. Also, there are the dust storms, which stir up the ashes from the fires, restricting visibility that much more.”
Neptune Aviation, another fixed wing air tanker operator, had five of its specially modified Lockheed P2V Neptune airtankers working the Central and West Texas fires since March, according to Dan Snyder, senior vice-president of the Missoula, Montana, company. To date, the aircraft have flown over 300 hours on the fires, working mostly out of the Midland-Odessa airport. Depending upon the proximity of the tanker base to the fires, the aircraft will do 2-4 drops per day, with round trips consuming as much as two hours.
“At US Forest Service request, we sent the tankers three weeks earlier than we were contractually obligated,:” Snyder pointed out. “In addition, as of May 2, we have supplied enough crews to fly a 7-day per week schedule–per aircraft–rather than the six days we usually do. As more of our tankers cycle through maintenance, they will go to Texas.”
Columbia Helicopters of Portland, Oregon, has two of its Columbia 107-II heavy lift helicopters in Texas, with the first one flying on the fires since February, and the second one dispatched to the state in mid-April. Both are operating out of Alpine, currently on the Rock House and Trans Pecos Complex fires. Each helicopter uses a 1,300 gallon, external SEI Torrentula Bambi bucket, equipped with the Powerfill system at the end of 180-foot long lines. The buckets enable the flight crews to extract water from ponds and streams.
Keith Saylor, the company’s fire operations manager reported that over 140 flight hours, averaging 3-5 fuel cycles per day have been wracked up by the two helicopters on the Texas fires. “The number of drops per fuel cycle will vary between 14 and 45, depending on the distance between the water source and the drop site,” he said.
Hillcrest Aircraft Company, Aero Union Corporation, Neptune Aviation, and Columbia Helicopters are members of AHSAFA. AHSAFA is the Washington-based trade association representing the private operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft before the US Department of Agriculture-Forest Service; the US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management; the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the Fish and Wildlife Service; the National Park Service; and various State wild land firefighting agencies. The association represents its members on Capitol Hill by working with key Congressional offices for the promotion of aerial firefighting industry needs, and support, and at key government agency meetings to monitor and provide input on issues impacting the aerial firefighting industry. AHSAFA also interfaces with other trade groups with common interests.