Helitankers stand at the ready to douse this year’s wildfires

 - October 8, 2007, 10:37 AM

Despite the media attention on the Montana fires last summer and Southern California fires in October, last year’s fire season didn’t come even close to being the worst in recent times, according to statistics generated by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) of Boise, Idaho. In terms of total acres burned, last year didn’t even make the top five, with just shy of four million acres burned compared with nearly 7.2 million acres in 2002 and 8.4 million acres in 2000.

But tell that to the smokejumpers and firefighters on the ground, the air attack and helitanker pilots and the maintenance and support crews who helped battle the flames. They’ll tell you that the saga of last year wasn’t in terms of acres burned but where they burned.

“Fire season has changed a lot,” said Robin Rogers, vice president of Rogers Helicopters in Fresno, Calif. A family-owned business started 41 years ago by Rogers’ father, Rogers Helicopters is one of the largest rotorcraft companies in the Golden State with more than 20 aircraft on fire contracts last year. “People are living in foothills and places that weren’t inhabited 10 years ago. Fires are burning up million-dollar houses that simply weren’t there before, and fighting the fires is more difficult because more people are in danger. Lightning still starts a lot of fires, but we’re getting more fires started by people who have moved into the area.”

Rogers Helicopters and its Heavy Lift Helicopter subsidiary had three Sikorsky CH-54 Skycranes, six Bell 212s and three air-attack airplanes fighting the October Los Angeles area fires alone. Although Rogers Helicopters has a fleet of charter, medevac and utility aircraft based at Fresno, Clovis, Angles Camp and Apple Valley, Calif., Rogers said firefighting accounts for approximately 70 percent of his company’s revenues.

“A good portion of that firefighting revenue comes from the Skycranes,” Rogers told AIN. “The Skycranes arrive on the scene already loaded with 2,000 gallons of water. Depending on how close the water supply is, the Skycranes average 10 loads per hour. That’s dropping an average of 20,000 gallons of water on the fire per hour. It’s quite an effective firefighting tool.”

Rogers’ Bell 212s and Eurocopter A-Stars serve dual transport and helitanker roles, bringing firefighters to the scene of the fire and then getting into the fire-dousing rotation using water gathered in Bambi buckets or self-filling belly tanks. One of Rogers’ Turbo Commanders will circle high overhead, serving as an aerial command post and a link between the firefighters on the ground and the helitankers in the air.

Carson Helicopters of Perkasie, Pa., this fire season will be offering for the first time its S-61 FireKing Heli-Tanker, a conversion of the venerable Sikorsky workhorse that has a shorter fuselage, new rotor blades and a 12-foot-long snorkel to fill a 1,000-gallon belly water tank (augmented by a 30-gallon foam tank). The belly tank, which attaches to the hard points for the belly hook, can be removed or installed in about 30 minutes.

“You don’t fight a fire with one tool,” Rogers said. “Different tools do different things. The most important thing we do is to support the firefighters on the ground. Fires are put out by ground pounders.”

In addition to the air-attack aircraft and helitankers, firefighters in Alaska find themselves in need of a third fleet of aviation resources to help fight fires in the remote wilderness of the state’s inner regions. Unlike in the lower 48, where helicopter crews end their long days flying the helo back to a staging area, in Alaska the norm is for the pilot to bunk there at the fire scene with the firefighters, maintenance crews and support personnel.

“In the continental U.S., crews fight fires all day, usually in an area with road access, then retreat to a staging area,” said Gus Lapthorne, director of operations for ERA Aviation of Anchorage, with additional locations in Reno, Nev., and Lake Charles, La. “In Alaska, you might fight a fire 200 miles from where the helo is based and where there is no road access. The aircraft stay on the fire, and shut down on the fire site. The pilot and mechanic bivouac with the rest of the firefighters, and cargo aircraft fly food, equipment, crew and fuel to the site. Also, because of our long hours of daylight, it’s not uncommon to double crew an aircraft and operate around the clock.”

ERA also uses Bell 212s and A-Stars on its “call when needed” fire contracts, though the helos are equipped with Bambi buckets instead of belly tanks.

Although Alaska saw 559,332 acres burn last year (the third highest in terms of number of acres that year next to Montana at 804,413 acres and California at 902,253 acres), the Alaskan fire season was really fairly slow compared with the season in the lower 48.

“Alaska has a good fire-support system that is very well staffed,” said an NIFC spokesman. “But there are times when fires are in extremely remote locations and the state simply doesn’t have the resources to fight a fire that remote.” He said this year’s fire budget is “slightly less than $2.8 billion, distributed to a number of federal agencies.” Although much of the U.S., including the drought-stricken Southwest, had a rather wet winter, he said that there’s still danger lurking in this fire season.
“Southern California and the Southwest continue to be a concern,” the spokesman said. “Despite the rain and snow this winter, drought conditions still linger.

Additionally, there are millions of acres of insect-killed trees throughout Arizona and Southern California. These trees, weakened by the drought, were ravaged by the bark beetle, and now these dead trees provide potential fuel for fires in these area