Aerial Firefighters Proved Last-Minute Readiness To Attack Latest California Fire Disaster

Privately operated aerial firefighting companies quickly went into a rapid attack mode on the day that three major fires exploded across Northern and Southern California. The Camp Fire, in Butte County, and the Woolsey and Hill fires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, ignited within hours of each other during the first week of November. All are still mostly uncontained.
“The successful first response by fixed wing tanker and helicopter operators happened at a time of the year when these aircraft are usually just starting to undergo their winter maintenance, and flight crews are in an off-duty mode,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).
“We had no indication that these fire events would happen so late in the year, until we got an unexpected phone call from the US Forest Service (USFS) on the morning of November 8, asking if we had aircraft available,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer at Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana. “At that time, three of our BAe 146s were going through heavy checks, and five others were on the ramp in Missoula, covered with snow.”
But, as Snyder noted, by that afternoon, four of the five tankers were crewed and dispatched to California under USFS contracts–some within as little as two hours. The next day, a fifth aircraft flew out of Missoula at the urgent request of the California Department Of Forestry And Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). Currently, the aircraft is based at Ramona in preparation for initial attack on fire starts in that area of Southern California.
Activating the five aircraft, Snyder explained, also meant recalling pilots who were off until recurrent training in January. Some were as far away as Florida. “Most did not anticipate returning to work until completion of their annual checks. Yet, we were able to respond with aircraft and crews within a single day,” he said.
Snyder added that, prior to the call-up, a sixth tanker had been prepositioned at Chico, California. That aircraft is currently operating assisting the other five on the Camp, Woolsey, and Hill fires.
Rick Livingston, President of Sonora, California-based Intermountain Helicopter, reported that the company’s single Bell 212 helicopter was undergoing a fuel control component replacement, when CAL FIRE called. “We were fortunate that nothing had been torn apart, and nothing major was being done that would have kept the helicopter out of service for a long time,” he said. “From the time we were called up until we dispatched the helicopter to the Camp Fire, the maintenance issue delayed us only two days.”
Livingston said that while the extensiveness and severity of the fires was totally unanticipated, the dry conditions and high winds provided a “heads-up” that such an event could happen this late in the season.
Helimax Aviation General Manager, Josh Beckham, had put two of the Sacramento-based company’s CH 47-D helicopters in winter maintenance when CAL FIRE asked for help. Fortunately, a third helicopter was mission-ready, and was dispatched to Oroville within two hours of the call on November 8th. “We try to keep at least one aircraft ready to go out the door—year round,” he explained. “In fact, we were aware of the Camp Fire prior to the CAL FIRE request, so we made a preemptive move to recall our pilots in case they were needed.”
Beckham added that Helimax has since prepared an additional helicopter for quick deployment. “Historically, we have always prepared for extended fire seasons,” he pointed out. “It’s not uncommon for us to work on fires as late as December and January.”
Helicopter operator Erickson has five of its Erickson S-64 AirCranes operating in California. Of that number four have been assigned to the Camp and Woolsey Fires, according to Andy Mills, the Portland, Oregon-based company’s President of Commercial Aviation. The five include two under CAL FIRE exclusive use contracts, and one each under contact with San Diego Gas and Electric, the City of Los Angeles Fire Department, and the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Helicopters and crews, Mills reported, were ready to go, when assigned to the fires on November 8 and 9.
“The fire activity was not a big surprise, given the continued drought in the West, and the fact that fall is usually when the Santa Ana winds blow in California,” he said. “We often see some activity in the fall in California, although obviously these particular fires were very fast and severe. We know that in recent times fires can occur in California any time of year and we prepare for that.”
Keith Saylor, Director-Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters, reported that the Portland-headquartered company has five helicopters under CAL FIRE call when needed contracts. Of that group, two, a Columbia Model 234 and a CH 47D were deployed to the Camp Fire, and two CH 47Ds to the Woolsey Fire. Another Model 234 is at Sacramento staged for initial attack.
“When we received the call from CAL FIRE, our aircraft were ready to respond due to our CAMP (Continuous Airworthiness Maintenance Program),” he explained. “This program allows for a portion of the maintenance to be accomplished each night, allowing us to operate our helicopters 365 days per year.”
Saylor pointed out that there was a pretty good chance that a major fire would happen. “In fact, we had already pre-positioned two helicopters to Red Bluff, California, in case of an emergency this late in the season,” he said. “We prepare for a worst case scenario, and we’re always ready to support the fire agencies when needed.”
Columbia Helicopters, Erickson, Helimax Aviation, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the USFS, and other agencies tasked with wildland management and natural resource protection.

Aerial Firefighters May Add Resources, Stress Need For More Long-Term Contracts

A huge number of exceptionally destructive, back to back wildland fires throughout the western US this year is prompting some aerial firefighting companies to add resources, assuming that future fire events will be equally frequent and devastating.
At the same time, a few operators see a greater need for long-term, exclusive use contracts with the US Forest Service (USFS)—the domestic industry’s primary customer—in order to assure the funding stability necessary to hire more personnel and purchase additional aircraft, if needed. Awarded on a bid-basis, exclusive use contracts run up to four years in duration, and guarantee a set fee per day, usually over several months, to keep the aircraft available for duty, whether or not it flies. In addition, the customer sets a rate paid for each hour the airplane is flying on a fire.
This year, however, the USFS issued more call when needed contracts, in which a day rate, plus a fee per flight hour is paid only for the duration of the assignment, which could be as little as one day.
“For the fixed wing tankers, the USFS put only 13 aircraft on exclusive use contracts this year, compared to 20 in 2017,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based aerial firefighting industry trade group. “However, the smaller number of exclusive use contracts was the result of the June release of requests for proposals (RFP) from the Forest Service.”
“I would like to see more exclusive use contracts, so we could dedicate more of our fleet to firefighting,” said Josh Beckham, General Manager of Helimax Aviation in Sacramento. Beckham reported that since early April, four of the company’s bucket-equipped CH-47D helicopters worked on fires mostly in Oregon and Montana, and in California, under USFS exclusive use and call when needed contracts; as well as under call when needed contracts with the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE).
One of the busiest years in its history, Helimax had to dispatch extra mechanics and supplies to support the additional hours the helicopters flew. In preparation for next year’s fire season, Helimax, which has three avionics mechanics, plans to increase that number by eight for field repairs, Beckham reported.
For Intermountain Helicopter, a Sonora, California-based operator of a single Bell 212, the 2018 fire season has been its “busiest since 1984, in terms of assignments,” according to company President Rick Livingston. This year, he said, the helicopter has operated in an initial attack mode, solely within California under USFS and CALFIRE call when needed contracts. One of the assignments kept the aircraft flying for over a month on the Car Fire, one of the state’s most destructive.
“As a small company, operating a single helicopter, we’ve done all we can to prepare for the future,” Livingston stated. “There’s not much else to do, except quickly react to any mechanical problems. So far, any downtime for the helicopter has involved replacements of timed out life-limited parts.”
While adding a helicopter to its fleet might be viewed as an option, Livingston explained it would be “a tough call” for a small operator. “That’s because you don’t know, from year to year, if there will be enough work for an additional helicopter,” he stressed. “This would be an issue, especially when operating helicopters under call when needed contracts.”
Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer, of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, reported that his company, which operates nine BAe 146 fixed wing airtankers, responded to the fires this year, with four aircraft under call when needed contracts, in addition to those under exclusive use.
“If the trend toward call when needed contracts continues, costs may increase,” Snyder cautioned. “As an industry, with call when needed contracts, the utilization is uncertain and the impact of not being able to efficiently perform essential maintenance does cause costs to increase.”
Snyder added that, under exclusive use contracts, it is easier to plan maintenance and training—which reduces costs–since the operator knows how long the aircraft will be needed. “Under a call when needed contract, you have to maintain the aircraft within a tighter timeframe. This means compressing the maintenance period, to get more work done in a shorter period of time.”
Portland, Oregon-headquartered Columbia Helicopters deployed a fleet of six helicopters, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, under exclusive use and call when need USFS contracts, according to Keith Saylor, the company’s Director of Commercial Operations. One helicopter, a Columbia Helicopters Model 234, working under a USFS exclusive use contract, operated on the Mendocino Complex fire, which was California’s largest to date.
Because of the heavy fire activity, the company had to escalate both the flight and maintenance support of its operations. “This meant sending additional people and components to support the helicopters in the field,” Saylor remarked.
Saylor called the 2018 fire season an “above average year for assignments to fires”. However, he reported that going forward, the company will do more prepositioning of its helicopters, as they become available for call when needed contracts—which he said have worked out well for the company, given its diversity of work.
“We look at maps and forecasts to determine the most likely places for high fire risk, then position the aircraft in those areas,” he explained.
Columbia Helicopters, Helimax Aviation, Intermountain Helicopter and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA.