After nearly two months of record forest fires from Michigan to California, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) added four more leased heavy helicopters to its firefighting fleet in late June. The additions include two Sikorsky S-61s from Siller Helicopters, an Erickson S-64 Air-Crane and an S-70 from Firehawk Helicopters. A spokesman for Erickson said that last year the company had six helicopters flying USFS contracts; this year that number is eight. The USFS said the helicopters will be used for large-fire support and in the initial assault both to drop retardant and support ground crews.
The warm spring and record summer heat across parts of the U.S., combined with continued tree death from beetle infestation, has made for an unusually volatile wildfire season, particularly in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. According to the USFS, the annual average over the last 10 years has seen 41,043 fires destroying 2.68 million acres. Through the first six months of this year, the USFS has reported 30,132 fires consuming 2.44 million acres.
The USFS’s fleet consists largely of leased fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters contracted under both “exclusive use” and on-call bases. Elements of the current fleet include 12 large airtankers, one ultra-large DC-10 airtanker, 44 single-engine tankers, 167 type one, two and three helicopters that are on exclusive-use contracts, and 202 helicopters on “call when needed” contracts. In early July more than 110 helicopters were flying on fires, mainly in the Western and Rocky Mountain states. In late June the 18,247-acre Waldo Canyon fire prompted evacuation of parts of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and suspension of flight training operations there. The Academy airport was turned into a base camp for tankers and other aircraft fighting the fire.
Early last month the USFS let contracts for seven more large tankers under exclusive-use agreements, and the agency is seeking 11 to 21 more.