USA — With a record-breaking year for low rainfall in California, aerial firefighters are on alert during what has historically been a post-fire season period for the drought-plagued state.
Indicative of the seriousness of the extremely high fire danger right now, Rogers Helicopters received an exclusive use contract extension from the US Forest Service (USFS) for one of its Bell 212 helicopters, according to Robin Rogers, the Fresno-based company’s Vice President.
“It is the first time in many years that we have had a helicopter under a USFS exclusive use contract at this time of year. But with no rain, and a long period of unusually warm weather, we are still coping with an ongoing fire season,” Rogers stated.
The 9-place, twin turbine engine helicopter, which had been dropping water on the Pfeiffer Fire near California’s scenic Big Sur in December, was redeployed Christmas Eve with a pilot, mechanic and fuel truck driver to Santa Maria, near the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California. Rogers reported that the helicopter and crew are likely to remain there at least through January 6, although the contract duration is on a day to day basis.
He added the company has alerted the California Department Of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) of its readiness to deploy aircraft, if needed, for state lands protection. “We have two Bell 212s, and one Rockwell Commander 690 fixed wing aircraft, used for air traffic control during aerial firefighting operations, available for immediate dispatch,” Rogers said.
Portland-headquartered Columbia Helicopters is also in discussions with CALFIRE, as well as the USFS, advising the agencies of aircraft availability.
“We have nothing on contract currently, but we could likely make aircraft available if needed,” explained Dan Sweet, Columbia Helicopters’ Public Relations Manager. “Keith Saylor, our Fire Operations Manager, is monitoring the situation in California and is communicating with officials of both CALFIRE and the USFS, making them aware of our aircraft readiness.”
Although much of Columbia Helicopters’ fleet is undergoing winter maintenance, Sweet pointed out that there are helicopters currently working logging operations that could quickly be redeployed for firefighting. “It has been many years since we have seen a fire season in California this severeand running so late,” he said.
“California may be leading a trend away from seasonal to year-round periods of wildland fire danger,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “Rogers Helicopters and Columbia Helicopters are fine examples of the capability of the privately operated aerial firefighting companies to adjust to what is becoming the new reality with wildland fire risks, thanks in part to global climate change.”
Columbia Helicopters and Rogers Helicopters are both members of AHSAFA, the Washington, DC-based trade association representing commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.