Airport used for refilling air tankers with retardant on Detwiler Fire ran out of fuel

retardant p2v Redding
Reloading a P2V with retardant at Redding, August 7, 2014.

Most of the large air tankers working on the Detwiler Fire at Mariposa, California are reloading with retardant at Castle Airport 25 miles west of the fire. When an air tanker needs fuel, they will often have it pumped onboard at the same time the retardant tanks are being refilled. And sometimes a pilot will prefer to work a fire with less than a full tank of fuel so they can carry more retardant. They will have to refuel more often, but the weight savings is very important.

On Wednesday, according to a spokesperson for CAL FIRE, the vendor at Castle Airport ran out of fuel, so air tankers needing more had to divert to Mather Airport southeast of Sacramento to get fuel, and then fly to Castle for retardant before returning to the fire. The spokesperson said that by Thursday the fuel shortage had been resolved.

Fire officials are establishing a retardant site for helicopters so that they can drop long term retardant on the fire rather than water, which is less effective. This was also done on the Whittier Fire, as we reported a week ago. Below is the video from that fire.

Video report from retardant drafting facility

This video by KEYT was streamed live on YouTube, showing and explaining the activities at a facility set up at the Whittier Fire for mixing retardant for helicopters that could draft to refill their tanks. The 11-minute video did not show any ships with buckets — just Type 1 helicopters with internal or external tanks.

Montana still disappointed that the USFS will not approve their helicopters

The disagreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the state of Montana over helicopters operated by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation continues.

MT DNRC helicopter
Helicopter operated by the Montana DNRC. Photo credit: Montana DNRC.

The DNRC operates five UH-1H (Huey) helicopters that are on loan from the U.S. Forest Service under the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program. After the state made several significant modifications to the aircraft they no longer conform to the specifications the USFS requires to be approved, or “carded”, so that they can be used on federal wildfires. With the modifications, Montana now calls them “MT-205” helicopters. The change most often mentioned is the 324-gallon water bucket they use when the maximum allowed for that model under USFS regulations is 300 gallons.

In the latest development in the disagreement, MTN News reported that on Wednesday Montana’s Environmental Quality Council voted to send letters to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue, asking that an exception be made that would allow the modified MT-205’s to be used on federal lands.

In an excerpt from an article by Jonathon Ambarian of MTN News, DNRC Director John Tubbs explains why they do not wish to use the USFS approved water bucket.

Tubbs said the MT-205 helicopters would have to be outfitted with a bucket smaller than 300 gallons in order to meet the federal standard. He said DNRC isn’t willing to make that change, because they want to maintain as much firefighting capacity as possible.

After we wrote about this controversy in 2015, representatives from three privately owned helicopter companies sent us a letter laying out a number of reasons why the MT-205’s should not be granted an exception to the federal standards. In addition to the issue of government competing with private enterprise, they said:

The Forest Service has not approved their aircraft for use, and has not for several years, because engineering and data for certain modifications performed on their aircraft is suspect or missing.  Furthermore, critical required engineering data that has been provided to the DNRC is not adhered to.

And their letter continued:

[The helicopters acquired through the FEPP] are to be maintained in accordance with the original military standards or a combination of military or commercial (FAA) standards, whichever are more stringent. The DNRC has done neither.

AStar at the Prairie Dog Fire

I cruised through Wind Cave National Park today while firefighters were dealing with the Prairie Dog Fire that burned a couple of acres (at last count) more or less in the center of the park. It was burning in timber and grass, slowly, since there is still a lot of greenness left in the herbaceous vegetation. There was a great deal of lightning yesterday, and this little blaze was a result.

The Eurocopter AS350 B3, assigned to Custer, SD and operated by Trans Aero LTD was on scene parked near the intersection of US Hwy. 385 and State Highway 87. I grabbed a few pictures of it, and a grainy shot of the fire that was a mile or more away. Trans Aero names all of their ships, and since this one was in Italy when they purchased it, the name that stuck was “The Italian Job”, registered in the US as N357TA.

Almost exactly a year ago we shot photos of the same helicopter and many other aircraft at the Red Canyon Fire southwest of Pringle, South Dakota.

Sell Art Online

Rep. Adam Schiff questions the number of Type 1 helicopters on contract

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.

fire Aviation Strategy
Screen grab from the 2007-2009 NIAC Interagency Aviation Strategy document. Phase III, page 21.

Yamaha brings their crop dusting helicopter drone to the U.S.

Above: A Yamaha helicopter drone used in the Napa Valley to spray a fungicide over a vineyard. Screen grab from the Yamaha video below.

Yamaha helicopter drones have been used for 25 years in Japan for spraying chemicals over rice and other crops. Recently the company has been testing the aircraft in California’s Napa Valley to spray a preventative fungicide to keep powdery mildew from forming on grapes.

It makes you wonder if a helicopter drone would ever be used to spray or drop water or retardant on a wildfire. In 2015 Lockheed Martin and K-Max demonstrated the use of a full size drone, an optionally-piloted K-MAX, to haul external loads and drop water.

K-MAX remotely piloted dipping water
A remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter refills a water bucket during a demonstration October 14, 2015 east of Boise, ID.

Oregon air tankers

Above: Tanker 62 in Madras, OR.

Todd McKinley shot these photos June 29 at various locations in Oregon. Thanks Todd!

Oregon air tankers
Tanker 804 in Prineville, OR.
Oregon air tankers
Tanker 66 in Madras, OR. Notice anything unusual about this aircraft?
Oregon air tankers
Helicopter 703 in Madras, OR.
Oregon air tankers
Tanker 05 in Redmond, OR.