Forest Service makes major changes in helicopter contracts

One vendor said new requirements could reduce the number of helicopters on contract

White Draw Fire, South Dakota, June 29, 2012
White Draw Fire, South Dakota, June 29, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service, the agency responsible for awarding federal contracts for large air tankers and firefighting helicopters, is proposing a number of very significant changes to the helicopter contracts. The agency has posted a second draft of a new Request for Proposals (RFP) and will hold a virtual meeting about the contracts on September 29.

SAM.govOne of our readers whose company has been providing helicopters on the previous contracts has some opinions about the changes the Forest Service is pushing. They requested to remain anonymous in order to avoid retribution from the agency. Here is what they wrote. It has been lightly edited.

The Call When Needed (CWN) “Parent Contract” is a 1 year with 9 option years contract, with Exclusive Use (EU) contracts being bid *through* the parent contract for 1 year with four option years. In each case, only the first year is guaranteed.  They claim that 2 times throughout the 1/9 year parent contract, they will allow onboarding of new vendors/equipment.  But only when they decide, of course!  Sounds like a great schedule to buy a “next gen” helicopter.

This draft RFP is such a massive and violent change from what has been requested in previous contracts that most operators aren’t going to be able to handle it.  We operate Type III helicopters and are now faced with 40lbs+ of equipment (costing over $60k per aircraft) to meet minimum requirements – things that we really don’t need like a Traffic Avoidance System (but the ADS-B they required last year isn’t good enough) and a loudspeaker (because yelling at the fire helps?).  Oh, and don’t glance over the cockpit camera, which they want even on restricted category bucket ships.  The cheapest camera we could find is $10,000.  How’s about an STC for personal electronic devices, only available from one company, nobody else in the industry even knows what the hell the STC is or is for!  But you better pay for it, USFS says!

Once we get all of that figured out, turns out that the increase in performance specifications at 7,000′ / 30°C combined with the added equipment pretty much eliminates legacy ships from meeting performance requirements.  They essentially want a Sky Crane to do a Jet Ranger’s job… and guess who they were calling last year when our state was in a firestorm?  A lot of the operators that will get pushed out because of this RFP do a lot of irrefutably safe work when fire season peaks, or when resource work is needed, with excellently maintained legacy platforms at great value to the taxpayers.

Add to this that they are wanting us to throw all of this money into our aircraft to get on the contract (which is now a 10 year contract!) while simultaneously saying that they fully intend on moving to “modern” helicopters that are built after the year 2000 and are all twin engine.  But they won’t tell us when they are doing that, just that as we bid on EU work within the CWN contract eventually they are going to want “modern helicopters”.  The only modern type III helicopter we can find that meets the requirement is $6.4m which is triple the value of our 5 type III helicopter fleet (and we own a Type III light twin, it’s just too old for the Forest Service’s liking).  Type II’s?  There are only 2 options and they are well in to the 10’s of millions of dollars.  Say goodbye to the 205 and 212, its brand new 412EPX’s or nothing.

The biggest issue overall is that this contract is a prerequisite for our other federal and state work such as state fire and wildlife survey, etc.  Without a federal contract, we can’t get carded – and without cards, we can’t work for the state.  So, because the Forest Service wants to push all but the “top tier” of their options out, they are essentially putting every government agency’s resources at risk.  We can only hope the upcoming DOI on-call helicopter RFP due out later this year isn’t so crazy.

We are all for the push for better equipment for our wildland fire efforts… but the USFS can’t do the change this suddenly and without any industry input.  There is obviously some back door dealing going on with this RFP as it very specifically pushes money to certain equipment providers and tips the hat to certain helicopter companies.  The question and answer document shows the USFS is unwilling to be understanding – its our way or the highway, thanks for nothing.  We have gone a few years in the past 10 where we had zero USFS work at all based on fire behavior… but they want their random equipment to be installed on our dime.  It’s driving us away from government work and I’m truly worried about the availability of rotor assets next year if they end up going through with this wish list RFP.

I know we aren’t alone in how upset we are with the Forest Service right now.  A quick peruse through that Q&A shows that dozens of operators really gasped when this RFP came out.  The arrogance and dismissal by the FS with most questions being answered “Noted, Language will remain as written” just adds frustration to irritation.  Thanks for giving us a voice

Video of two Type 1 helicopters reloading with retardant

Mobile retardant base at the Monument Fire in California

Chinooks reloading with retardant
Helicopters reloading with retardant at the Monument Fire, 2021. Image from Philip Blagg’s video, below.

Philip Blagg recorded this video of two Type 1 helicopters operated by Columbia Helicopters as they refilled their buckets with retardant at a mobile fire retardant base on the Monument Fire in Northwest California. The exact date is uncertain, but probably early in September, 2021.

Edited to remove the word “Chinook.”

Video of five Air-Cranes skimming water in Greece

Air-Crane skimming water
Air-Crane skimming water in Loutropyrgos, August 19, 2021. Still image from video by GVLACOM.

The video below has footage of five different Erickson Air-Cranes flying low over a lake in Greece, skimming water to fill their 2,650-gallon tanks while on a firefighting mission in Loutropyrgos, a city in Attica. You’ll see 748, 747, 740, 734, and 737.

The still images are screen grabs from the video by GVLACOM.

Air-Crane skimming water
Air-Crane skimming water in Loutropyrgos, August 19, 2021. Still image from video by GVLACOM
Air-Crane skimming water
Air-Crane skimming water in Loutropyrgos, August 19, 2021. Still image from video by GVLACOM.

Greece to boost numbers of firefighting aircraft

Evacuation ferry Greece
Evacuees fleeing a wildfire in Greece board a ferry August 9, 2021  under smoky skies. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The government of Greece has plans to increase the number of aircraft that can be used to assist firefighters battling wildfires.

In the wake of devastating fires earlier this month Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis reiterated plans Wednesday to purchase and lease additional wildland firefighting aircraft.

From Ekathimerini, August 25, 2021:

Mitsotakis also announced plans to create a special unit made up of forestry experts and firefighters “that will be able to operate more effectively in the forests.”

The conservative leader added that responsibility for firefighting and prevention was passed on from the forest service to the fire department under the socialist PASOK government in 1998.

“It took many years for the fire service to adapt,” he said.

Critics say the decision has undermined fire prevention in the country.

After the fire siege earlier this month, Mr Mitsotakis said there were plans to modernize the aerial firefighting fleet by investing 1.7 billion euro ($2 billion).

“This plan was approved by the cabinet of ministers, and it includes very important support of our air firefighting fleet with the acquisition of new Canadair [water scooping air tankers], small Air Tractor planes [single engine air tankers], and firefighting helicopters,” the Prime Minister said at a press conference August 12.

From ANI:

Along with the modernization of the aerial firefighting fleet, the 1.7 billion euro plan dubbed “Aigis” is seeking to expand the capabilities of the Civll Protection Authority with the procurement of fire detection devices, drones, and other equipment.The funds for this plan have already been secured and come from three sources, the National Strategic Reference Framework funds, the European Investment Bank, and the recovery fund, according to the prime minister.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick.

Southern California’s “Quick Reaction Force” of three large helicopters dispatched to Northern California

Westover Field at Jackson, CA near the Caldor Fire

Quick Reaction Force of helicopters fire Caldor
Quick Reaction Force of helicopters dispatched to Westover Field near the Caldor Fire. Coulson image.

A group of large helicopters that has been on contract in three Southern California counties since June 15, called a Quick Reaction Force (QRF), has been dispatched to Northern California. They will be based just north of Jackson at Amador County Airport, also known as Westover Field.

The rapidly spreading 53,000-acre Caldor Fire is 19 miles northeast of the airport, south of Pollock Pines.

Quick Reaction Force of helicopters fire Caldor
Quick Reaction Force of helicopters dispatched to Westover Field near the Caldor Fire. Coulson image.

Los Angeles and Orange Counties are each supplying a 3,000-gallon CH-47D Chinook and Ventura County is sending a 1,000-gallon Sikorsky S-61. They can all drop water and hover-refill their tanks at night. The fourth member of the QRF is a Sikorsky S-76 from Orange County to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness of drops, and identify targets with a laser designator.

Coulson Aviation is the operator of all four helicopters. Britton Coulson, President and COO of the company, told Fire Aviation that they will also be operating one of their Cessna Citation intel aircraft to video the fleet working and map the progress.

Quick Reaction Force of helicopters fire Caldor
Quick Reaction Force of helicopters dispatched to Westover Field near the Caldor Fire. Coulson image.

A California Wine Country county hires a firefighting helicopter

Blue Sky Helicopters HH-60L, N51BH
File photo of Blue Sky Helicopters HH-60L, N51BH. Photo by Blue Sky Helicopters.

Napa County has joined the list of counties in California that own or contract for helicopters to assist firefighters on the ground by dropping water or transporting cargo.

The Napa Valley Register reported that the county awarded a contract to Blue Sky Helicopters for a Blackhawk. The Southern California based company operates HH-60L helicopters and has had contracts with the US Forest Service, Department of the Interior, Oregon Department of Forestry, Washington Department of Natural Resources, and CAL FIRE.

Napa County received several bids but selected Blue Sky and their $1.65 million offer.

CAL FIRE has been operating a CH-47D Chinook helicopter out of Napa County Airport, but it is subject to being assigned to fires in other parts of the state, as it was Tuesday. Napa wants the helicopter under the control of county Fire Chief Geoff Belyea to be sure it will primarily be available to protect property within the county.

In May the Napa Valley Register reported that a private organization’s offer to pay $1.5 million to help lease two single engine air tankers for the county was refused by CAL FIRE.

Other counties in California that have firefighting helicopters include Los Angeles, San Diego, Ventura, Orange, Kern, and Santa Barbara.

Napa County has had more than their fair share of very destructive fires over the last several years.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.

Aircraft on the Dixie Fire in Butte County, California

5:35 a.m. PDT July 14, 2021

Aircraft Dixie Fire
Aircraft on the one-acre Dixie Fire in Butte County, California July 13, 2021. Photo by CAL FIRE.

These photos were taken by CAL FIRE on the one-acre Dixie Fire in Butte County, California July 13, 2021. This fire is not to be confused with the Dixie Fire in Idaho that has burned over 19,000 acres. (UPDATE at 7:47 a.m. PDT July 14, 2021: on Tuesday the fire’s spread had been stopped for a while at one acre. That evening it took off and grew to about 60 acres and was very active again later in the day.)

Aircraft Dixie Fire
An S2T drops on the one-acre Dixie Fire in Butte County, California July 13, 2021. Photo by CAL FIRE.
Aircraft Dixie Fire
Firehawk refills with water on the one-acre Dixie Fire in Butte County, California July 13, 2021. Photo by CAL FIRE.

Washington state DNR has 25 firefighting aircraft this year

Air Tanker 260
Air Tanker 260 scooping water at Castaic Lake December 6, 2017 . Photo by Robert Schwemmer.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources does not have any large air tankers on contract for firefighting this year, but they will have 25 other aircraft working on exclusive use (EU) or hybrid call when needed (CWN) contracts.

Russ Lane, the DNR’s Assistant Wildfire Division Manager for Operations and Aviation, told Fire Aviation that this year they will have their agency’s nine UH-1H helicopters and one from Chelan County Fire Department that they lease and operate. They will also hire a tanked UH-1 that will be supplied by High Performance Helicopters Corp. on a 60-day Mandatory Availability Period (MAP) call when needed contract.

Washington State DNR UH-1H helicopter
Washington State DNR UH-1H helicopter. DNR photo.

They will have two Type 1 helicopters on 89-day EU contracts — a tanked UH-60 from High Performance and a KMAX from Columbia Basin Helicopters.

Multi engine water scoopers
Currently the DNR has two Aero-Flite CL-415’s working; T-260 and T-262. On July 9 a Bridger Aerospace CL-415EAF, Tanker 283, came on duty fresh from the paint shop and carding. A second Bridger Aerospace CL-415EAF, Tanker 284, is expected on July 27. All four were picked up on CWN with 60-day MAPs. (More about the CL-415EAF aircraft.)

Tanker 283, CL-415EAF, N418BT
Tanker 283, CL-415EAF, N418BT. Bridger Aerospace photo.

Single-engine Air Tractor 802F water scoopers 
Three amphibious scoopers from Dauntless and two from Air Spray are working now.

Air Attack
There are two AC-500 air attack ships on 89-day EU contracts, and one “surge” Kodiak from Bridger Aerospace on a 60-day MAP CWN arrangement.

Air Tractor AT-802F Fire Boss. Air Tractor photo.
Air Tractor 802F Fire Boss. Air Tractor image.