LOGGING AIR TIME: Firefighting aircraft have little downtime between fire seasons | SierraSun.com

LOGGING AIR TIME: Firefighting aircraft have little downtime between fire seasons

Emma Garrard/Sierra Sun file photoA firefighting helicopter drops a bucket of water on a wildfire near Truckee last year.

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 run from mid-June or early July to the end of September, the Forest Service can call on their contractors to come early, 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, and within an ever-narrowing time frame, according to a press release from 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 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.”

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.

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