The four-year exclusive use contracts for Type 1 firefighting helicopters issued in 2016 expire at the end of this month on April 30. Since new contracts based on the solicitation issued November 15, 2019 have not yet been awarded the U.S. Forest Service has given 30-day contracts to a handful of vendors.
After one of our readers told us about the 30-day contracts, I contacted the U.S. Forest Service by email with a list of questions to find out more details, including which purchasing authority was used to issue these unusual aerial firefighting contracts.
Kaari Carpenter speaking for the agency declined the specific requests, only saying, “The USDA FS is utilizing all options available via the existing aviation contracts and Call When Needed Agreements to ensure that historical helicopter coverage remains in place.” A direct appeal to the Forest Service Director of Fire and Aviation, Shawna Legarza, did not receive a response.
Hunt Norris, the General Manager of Siller Helicopters, confirmed that his company received two of the 30-day contracts. Siller operates CH-54A and S-64E Sikorsky Skycranes.
The Type 1 helicopter schedule called for two bases to open on April 12, Sierra Vista, Arizona and Silver City, New Mexico, but those contracts expire April 30. Five bases were expected to begin their season on May 1: Cedar City, Utah; Helena, MT; Porterville, CA; Bishop, CA; and La Grande, OR.
For a number of years the Forest Service had 34 Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use contracts, but that number was cut to 28 in 2017 using the provisions for three 1-year optional extensions. The first two years after the reduction, 2017 and 2018, the percentages of requests for Type 1 helicopters that were unable to be filled (UTF) were 60 and 45 percent, respectively. Last year, 2019, was extremely slow, with the number of acres burned in the lower 49 states being 40 percent lower than the 10-year average. That was reflected in the UTFs — only 5 percent of the requests were not filled in 2019.