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Aerial firefighters have deployed modern fixed-wing tankers and helicopters to Florida during what has been called the state’s worst fire season since 2011.
Since January, wildfires have destroyed over 126,000 acres, from the Georgia border to south Florida, prompting Governor Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency on April 11. The excessive number of fires has been attributed to hotter and drier than normal conditions.
“Although it’s not unusual for us to be working on fires in Florida at this time of year, we have seen an early kickoff to their fire season, which usually begins in March,” said Dan Snyder, chief operating officer for Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana.
Neptune Aviation Services, Snyder noted, started ramping up its air tanker operations in Florida in February when it positioned one of its newly modified BAe 146 jets to a US Forest Service (USFS) tanker base at Lake City, under an optional use provision of its USFS exclusive use contract. Since then, two additional BAe 146 tankers — including one which arrived on April 16 — have been working out of Lake City.
All three tankers are now operating under current, standard exclusive use contracts, and are staffed with two pilots, and two field maintenance staff – per aircraft.
At this time, the focus of the tankers has been on the “West Mims Fire” in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on the George-Florida border, and the “Cowbell Fire” burning in the Big Cypress National Preserve, some 45 miles of Miami, he explained.
“We have been averaging four to five retardant-dropping missions, per day, per aircraft, over the past week,” Snyder reported. “Those aircraft will remain in Florida for as long as needed. In fact, we are prepared to bring in additional tankers, if required.”
Keith Saylor, director of commercial operations for Columbia Helicopters confirmed that the Portland, Oregon-based company has been operating a single CH-47D Chinook helicopter, under a USFS Exclusive Use contract, in Florida since April 1, when it was dispatched from McKinney, Texas, to Tallahassee. The helicopter, he pointed out, was modified by Columbia with a 2,800-gallon capacity internal tank for water or retardant.
“This is the first time we have deployed a tank-equipped helicopter to Florida,” said Saylor. “In prior years, our helicopter operations – there, and other places – have used external buckets. The internal tank has proven to be very successful and efficient at putting out fires, especially in the early stages.”
After initial operations out of Tallahassee, the helicopter was repositioned to the USFS Smokey helibase on April 9, where it is currently in an initial attack standby mode, with a staff of two pilots and eight mechanics. The Smokey helibase, located within the Ocala National Forest, is also in the middle of a restricted area — specifically, a bombing range primarily run by the U.S. Navy. The helicopter’s primary mission, Saylor explained, is to support the range in case any bombs start a fire, along with any other fire activity in the local area.
“We expect the helicopter to remain at Smokey, but we can relocate it at any time according to the USFS’s needs,” said Saylor. “The fire danger is very high in central Florida. It is very dry here, with little to no precipitation forecast in the coming week.”
Columbia Helicopters and Neptune Aviation Services are members of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the interests of the privately-owned and operated aerial firefighting companies before the US Forest Service and other federal agencies with regulatory oversight of wildland management and fire protection.