Above: A Type 1 helicopter, an Air-Crane, makes a drop on the Draw Fire in South Dakota, July 24, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
When the U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contracts by 18 percent earlier this year, we were not aware of any significant outcry among influential individuals who care about wildfire preparedness.
For years there had been 34 Type 1 helicopters on EU. On February 26, 2016 the USFS issued another round of EU contracts to 13 companies for a total of 34 Type 1 firefighting helicopters. The contracts were initially effective for one year, through April 30, 2017, with the possibility of three one-year renewal option periods.
But this Spring six of those helicopters were not renewed for the 2017 wildfire season, reducing the number to 28. There are at least a couple of dozen other Type 1 ships that have Call When Needed (CWN) contracts, but they can’t be depended upon to always be available, waiting around at no cost for the phone to ring and a contract to be activated. They will seek other employment when not on an EU contract. And CWN aircraft cost the government more to operate than EU resources.
Last week Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), sent a letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell expressing concern over the decision by the Forest Service to change six Type 1 helicopters from EU to CWN.
“As we enter peak fire season in Southern California, I would like to know the implications of this decision on readiness and speed of response in the event of a fire, since as you are well aware, the speed of response can be the difference between a destructive wildfire and a controlled event,” Rep. Schiff wrote in the letter.
In March we asked Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, why there was a reduction in the number of Type 1 helicopters:
At this time, the agency has determined 28 to be the appropriate number of Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts given current types and numbers of other aircraft in the fleet. This is in line with the 2012 Airtanker Modernization Strategy.
However, that Airtanker Modernization Strategy does not make an independent recommendation on the number of helicopters or air tankers that are needed. But it refers to a study conducted from 2007 to 2009, the NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy, which concluded that the optimum number of Type 1 helicopters on EU was 34. It also recommended a total of 35 air tankers by 2018, which included three water-scooping air tankers.