Some of the nation’s aerial firefighting companies are already predicting fewer wildland fires this year, in contrast to the numerous devastating wildfires, of the past several years.

“Due to the heavy winter and spring precipitation, the 2019 fire season started late compared to last year–in many of the Western states,” noted Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services, a Missoula, Montana-based operator of fixed-wing, large tankers. “In fact, US Forest Service (USFS) forecasts are calling for lower than average fire activity in much of the West, at least through October; although there might be some elevated fire activity in the coastal regions of California, Oregon and Washington.”

Neptune Aviation Services has five BAe 146 tankers, out of a total fleet of nine, currently engaged in fire retardant dropping. A year ago, as many as eight would have been in the field by mid-July, according to Snyder. Of the five, one has been working out of Fairbanks, Alaska, under a USFS call when needed contract on the huge Swan Lake fire, since July 10. The other four are operating under exclusive use USFS contracts, including two flying out of Phoenix on multiple fires; one flying on the Buffalo fire in Nevada, and another prepositioned at Fresno, California, for initial attack, as needed.

Brian Jorgenson, Vice President of Timberline Helicopters, reported that the Sandpoint, Idaho, company is currently operating two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters in Alaska, on both the Swan Lake fire, and the Shovel Creek fire in the Kenai-Kodiak region. Both are flying under call when needed contracts from the Alaska Department of Forestry. At the same time, two of the company’s Kaman K-MAX heavy lift helicopters, under USFS exclusive use contracts, are prepositioned in California at Yreka and Placerville.

“Except for the two big fires in Alaska, we have worked on a few small ones, but nothing like what we had during the past few years,” said Jorgenson. “I don’t think the 2019 fire season will be as busy as those we have seen in previous years.”

Robin Rogers, Vice President of Fresno-based Rogers Helicopters, predicts that the 2019 fire season may be more regional than in recent years, and is more likely to ramp up should major lightning strikes and high winds occur. “We might see some activity in the coastal areas, but not much on the Eastern side of the Sierras,” he remarked. “There’s just too much water out there.”

For the past three weeks, two Rogers Helicopters Bell 212s have operated on call when needed contracts with the state of Alaska, with one at Fairbanks, and the other at Tok. 

Two additional Bell 212s are positioned in California in the El Dorado and Stanislaw National Forests. “Those two helicopters are ready to go, although there have been no fires,” he said.

A BAE-146 drops Phos-Check. Photo by John Slott Photography.

For Keith Saylor, Director of Commercial Operations for Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters, “there is no question that the wildland fire season has gotten off to a slow start this year, and difficult to predict how long it will be,” he said.

To date, Saylor reported, the company has deployed three CH-47Ds on fires in the Western US. “One is flying on a fire out of Canon City, Colorado, while the other two have been in Arizona for the past six to eight weeks, and are currently based at Sedona and Springerville,” he said. “While most of the action so far this year has been in the Southwest and Alaska, it’s just now starting to heat up in the Rocky Mountains where the fire activity is increasing. However, as the summer progresses we expect to see increased activity along the western states, as that area experiences hot, dry weather.”

Columbia Helicopters operates the largest civilian fleet of Vertol and Boeing heavy-lift firefighting helicopters in the world. Photo by Columbia Helicopters.

Saylor added that two of operator’s Columbia Model 234s, and one Columbia Model 107, are under USFS CWN contracts, and are currently sitting in Aurora Oregon ready for deployment, should they be required.

Helimax Aviation is also feeling the impact of what Josh Beckham, the company’s General Manager, has termed “a very mild fire season,” Helimax Aviation has four CH 47-D Chinook helicopters under USFS contracts. “Two, which are under exclusive use contracts, have been on fires in Oregon and Arizona, while the other two, which are under call when needed contracts, are in Howell, Michigan, and McClellan, California, awaiting call up,” Beckham explained. Last year, all four were active most of the time.

Helimax Aviation operates a mixed fleet of helicopters for aerial firefighting on contracts around the country. Photo by Helimax Aviation.

Beckham does not anticipate any great changes in wildland fire events until at least the fall, when the combination of dry grass and the Santa Ana winds in Southern California raise the fire risk considerably. “In the meantime, we are fully staffed and ready to go in case of a sudden flare up,” he stressed.

At Erickson, Inc., the relatively quiet firefighting season in the US has been offset by opportunities off-shore for the operator’s fleet of S64 helicopters, of which six are currently on fire duty in Greece.

“We have been on several fires in Europe doing initial attack, and in March, we were very busy in Chile,” reported Andrew Mills, President-Commercial Aviation for the Portland, Oregon-headquartered company. “Right now, we have 10 to 14 S64s engaged in firefighting, including some under exclusive use contracts with multiple fire agencies, and some on call when needed contracts with the USFS, the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire),” he said. “We are expecting the fire season to remain quiet at this time, based on snowpack and fire weather forecasts. How it will go from this point forward is hard to predict.”

Columbia Helicopters, Erickson, Inc., Helimax Aviation, Neptune Aviation Services, Rogers Helicopters, and Timberline Helicopters are members of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). The Washington, D.C. based trade association represents the interests of the privately owned and operated aerial firefighting industry in the US before the USFS, and other agencies tasked with wildland management and fire protection.

The information for this story was provided by the American Helicopter Service and Aerial Firefighting Association. You can learn more about their efforts by clicking on the provided link.