Longer seasons taxing aerial firefighters

Emma Garrard/Sierra Sun

Emma Garrard/Sierra Sun

Longer, more intense fire seasons are making for more work for aerial firefighters contracted around the country.

The U.S. Forest Service and other firefighting agencies contract with private flyers during fire seasons to operate airplanes and helicopters used to respond to blazes cropping up around the country. But as fire seasons start earlier and end later, those companies are asked to do more work to keep up.

"Across the Sierra we've had early high fire indexes - that means high temperatures, low humidity, low fuel moisture. A few weeks ago it was as high as mid-June of last year," said Rex Norman, spokesman for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

While typical contracts with aircraft operators run from mid-June or early July to the end of September, the Forest Service can call on their contractors to come early. They are paid the same as when they are under contract, said Staci Dickson, helicopter superintendent for the U.S. Forest Service.

"Extending pre-season, and post-season, is becoming more common," Dickson said.

But when the Forest Service doesn't have crews already under contract to call on if fires come early, as is the case this year in the Truckee-Tahoe area, there are other companies they can call on, she said.

"Call-When-Needed aircraft can come from all over the country," Dickson said. "But they can take half a day or a couple of hours compared to our strategically located contract helicopters."

Contract prices are increasing, Dickson said, but not because of longer or more intense fire seasons.

"The cost of fuel going up is the same as for the rest of us, impacting them on the cost of not only flying but anything from transporting parts to any part of operations," Dickson said.

For private contractors, the expanded fire seasons have meant ramping up preparation earlier within an ever-narrowing time frame, according to the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association.

"Today, we are starting heavy maintenance and ordering parts in October, because we could be called up for firefighting as early as the following February," said Gale Wilson, president of Hillcrest Aircraft Company of Idaho, in a release. "At one time, we usually did not get a call until the beginning of June. Now, since the fire seasons are at least four months longer than before, our 12 pilots are working year-round."

Wilson added that just since the start of this year, the company has deployed its helicopters to fires in Virginia, New Mexico, Arizona, Mississippi and South Carolina. He also pointed out that for the company now hires more pilots full-time.

Franz Bergtold, contract and charter manager for Hillsboro Aviation, said in the release that it is now standard procedure to prepare for the fire season in the winter months.

Dan Sweet, Columbia Helicopters' public relations manager said the company will redeploy helicopters to firefighting, even when operating under contract to logging companies.

"If we need to do that, the helicopter can be on its way to a fire in under an hour," Sweet said.

Truckee's chopper

The Truckee Tahoe Airport District board gave the go ahead to station a U.S. Forest Service contract helicopter at the airfield, but the contract still hasn't been filled, said Staci Dickson, helicopter superintendent for the Forest Service.

"As far as I know we're still on track to have a helicopter in Truckee," Dickson said. "We're just still waiting for the contract to be awarded."

If the contract is approved, a large, water-dumping helicopter would be stationed at Truckee Tahoe Airport starting July 1, she said.

But just because the helicopter would be based here doesn't mean it would be dedicated to the Truckee-Tahoe region. It would respond to fires across the country, Dickson said.

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