USA — Private sector aerial firefighters report their aircraft are mission-ready for what could be another devastating fire season in the US, as dry conditions continue to persist over much of the country. In fact, according to a US Forest Service (USFS) spokesman, the 2013 fire season is projected to be similar to last year’s, when 9.3 million acres of wildland were destroyed, by a total of 67,674 fires.
Operators of helicopters and fixed wing air tankers have already pre-positioned their aircraft to their bases of initial assignment, or plan to do so within the next 30 to 60 days, depending on the needs of the USFS. For example, Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services, an operator of large, fixed wing tankers, has located two of its P2V Neptunes to forward bases at Lake City, Florida, and Alamogordo, New Mexico, under a USFS contract extension. Currently, four of the company’s P2Vs have gone through scheduled maintenance over the winter and are ready to work.
“For this year’s fire season, we are prepared to field nine to ten aircraft, of which five to six would be P2Vs, and four BAe 146 next generation tankers,” said Dan Snyder, Neptune Aviation Services Chief Operating Officer. “For the BAe 146s, we are diligently working to install a redesigned tanking system, which provides improved fire retardant dropping characteristics over all types of terrain.” Two of those aircraft, he added, will be deployed with the improved tanking system in time for this year’s fire season.
Construction Helicopters, headquartered in Howell, Michigan, has four twin-turbine-engine helicopters, including a Bell 212 and three Bell 205s, ready to go under USFS exclusive use contracts of 120-day mandatory availability periods (MAP). According to Larry Kelley, the Boise, Idaho-based West Coast Operations Manager for Construction Helicopters, all four were repainted and retrofitted with upgraded avionics suites. One of the Bell 205s, he noted, will receive a rebuilt engine in April.
Of the fleet, two are currently at Ogden, Utah, with one at Sacramento, California. However, with the effective date of the contracts in June, two will be based in Salmon, Idaho, one at Ogden, and the remaining one at Dillon, Montana.
“One of our Bell 205s will be at Salmon in mid-May for rappelling training of ground-based fire fighters,” Kelly said. The Bell 205s, he noted, can carry up to nine firefighters and their equipment to the fire lines.
“We are anticipating a very active fire season, given the dry conditions and low snow pack which is 30 percent below normal in Idaho, for example,” Kelly stated.
Rick Livingston, President of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, reported that the company will operate its single Bell 212 helicopter out of Grass Valley, California, near the Tahoe National Forest, under an exclusive use contract. The helicopter, which will be supported by one pilot, one mechanic and one fuel truck driver, can haul eight firefighters and their gear. “We may need to put on an additional pilot in the event of a large fire,” Livingston said. The Bell 212 has just come out of winter maintenance, which, this year, included replacement of one of its twin engines.
Columbia Helicopters is readying three of its Model 107 twin rotor heavy lift helicopters for duty under exclusive use contracts, starting in June. According to the Portland, Oregon based company’s public relations manager Dan Sweet, their initial assignments will be to Hamilton, Montana; Pollock Pines, California; and John Day, Oregon,. Another aircraft, a Model 234 Chinook, will be based initially at LaGrande, Oregon, by May 1, also under an exclusive use contract. Up to three additional Model 107s are under call when needed agreements with the USFS.
“The private sector is, as in prior years, well prepared for a challenging fire season,” stated Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “Our member companies continue to maintain their aircraft to the highest standards for safe operation, and rapid response to a wildland fire at a moment’s notice.”
Columbia Helicopters, Construction Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.