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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.