Aerial Firefighters Scramble As Early Season Wildfires Torch Plains States, Florida

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WASHINGTON, March 15, 2017 /PRNewswire-iReach/ — Aerial firefighters are quickly deploying helicopters and fixed wing tankers to the devastating fires throughout much of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, and the Southeast, during an earlier than normal start of the fire season throughout those parts of the country.

The urgency of the rapidly unfolding fire emergency required one operator to take the unusual step to prepare an aircraft for deployment from a major industry trade show, where it was on display.

“This is the first time we have received a resource order for firefighting duty, while displaying our helicopter at a convention,” said Keith Saylor, Director, Commercial Operations, for Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters. Reached by phone at the Helicopter Association International (HAI) convention in Dallas, Saylor explained that transitioning the helicopter, from a static display to a mission-ready firefighting aircraft, involved removing the rotor blades, exiting the convention center, then reinstalling the rotor blades. This was followed by a flight to a nearby airport for refueling and overnighting. Called up on March 9, the helicopter was deployed the following day to a fire base at Ardmore, Oklahoma, under an optional use clause of a US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contract. The helicopter was dispatched with two pilots, five mechanics and ground support equipment drivers.

A former US Army-operated CH47D Chinook, the helicopter was modified by Columbia Helicopters with a 2,800 gallon capacity internal tank for water, jells, foam, or retardant dropping, and had been flown to the convention following firefighting duty on East Coast fires.

Also responding to the fires, Neptune Aviation Services has dispatched three of its BAe 146 tankers to multiple locations, according to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer for the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company. Three of the tankers were dispatched from Missoula between March 9 and 11, and flown to USFS tanker bases in Ardmore, Oklahoma, Abilene, Texas, and the Rocky Mountain Regional Airport, near Denver, Colorado. A fourth BAe 146 tanker will continue to fly out of a base at Lake City, Florida, where it has been on duty since February 20.

The tanker fleet, all of which are operating under a USFS exclusive use contract, have been dispatched with a total staff of 16, under a contract provision that permits deployment on notice of 24 hours or less. Snyder pointed out that one of the aircraft had just returned from a firefighting assignment in Chile.

“We understand that an earlier than usual fire season is always a possibility, even though there is no guarantee that it will happen from year to year,” Snyder remarked. “But, because we know it is possible, we keep some aircraft ready for a pre-season deployment. To do that, we perform all of the required maintenance and training—proactively–to enable us to respond to these situations.”

“The capability to respond on a moment’s notice, from anywhere, at any time, is typical of the privately-owned and operated aerial firefighting industry in the US,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “The operators, in fact, are gearing up for an especially active fire season, which is already following more recent patterns of early starts throughout much of the country.”

Columbia Helicopters and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the interests of the privately owned aerial firefighting industry in the US, before the USFS and other federal agencies tasked with wild land management and natural resource oversight.

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