Butte County Fire partners with PG&E on firefighting helicopter

In northern California tomorrow, PG&E and Cal Fire / Butte County Fire will request from the county Board of Supervisors authorization for the use of a contract firefighting helicopter. PG&E has an existing contract with PJ Helicopters out of Red Bluff, which would provide the aircraft to PG&E and the county.

KRCR-TV spoke with Cal Fire Captain Dan Collins about the request to the board, and he said firefighting aircraft are extremely important. “They can get there before ground resources and start dropping either water or fire retardant. To provide more fire equipment to the county is nothing but beneficial to everyone.”

Butte County Fire covers fire protection within the unincorporated areas of Butte County, the City of Oroville, the Town of Paradise, and the cities of Gridley and Biggs. Collins said the Butte County Fire Department would maintain operational control of the helicopter and provide dispatch services, along with coordinating requests from other agencies.

Collins also explained that the contract would be a collaboration between Butte Fire and PG&E — so the county would not have to fund anything. If approved, the new helicopter would be stationed at the Chico Airport starting in July.

PJ HELICOPTERS:  The history of the company dates back to the early days of flight; as the great-nephew of aviation pioneer Samuel Langley, Phil Gunsauls began operating a single fixed-wing cropduster in 1968. A few years later, he decided to pursue his passion for rotorcraft. Originally using his first initial and his wife’s middle initial, “PJ’s Helicopter” started operations in 1970, and agricultural work eventually transitioned to firefighting.

Butte County fire history


San Diego County training drill

Ryan Grothe captured for us several terrific photos of a San Diego County wildland drill between April 30 and May 2 in Chula Vista. Several fire and law enforcement agencies participated and training included shelter deployments, structure protection, wildland hose lays, and radio communications.

San Diego Fire Rescue operates a Sikorsky 70i Firehawk. Photo ©2024 Ryan Grothe
San Diego Fire Rescue operates a Sikorsky 70i Firehawk. Photo ©2024 Ryan Grothe

A San Diego Fire-Rescue helicopter made numerous water drops, along with a few simulated hoist rescues.

San Diego Fire Rescue operates a Sikorsky 70i Firehawk. Photo ©2024 Ryan Grothe
San Diego Fire Rescue operates a Sikorsky 70i Firehawk. Photo ©2024 Ryan Grothe

This event is held annually;. San Diego Fire Rescue operates a Sikorsky 70i Firehawk and they have recently purchased a Bell 412 EPX, expected to be delivered sometime toward the end of this year. Once it arrives, the new Bell will go to Hangar One at Palomar Airport for installation of avionics.

San Diego Fire Rescue operates a Sikorsky 70i Firehawk. Photo ©2024 Ryan Grothe
San Diego Fire Rescue operates a Sikorsky 70i Firehawk. Photo ©2024 Ryan Grothe
San Diego Fire Rescue operates a Sikorsky 70i Firehawk. Photo ©2024 Ryan Grothe
San Diego Fire Rescue operates a Sikorsky 70i Firehawk. Photo ©2024 Ryan Grothe

MANY THANKS for the terrific photos, Ryan!

“Autonomous” helicopter shows off possible wildfire response


RAIN's early-detection unpiloted helicopter system

Sikorsky’s “Optionally Piloted” Black Hawk helicopter equipped with MATRIX and Rain autonomy systems during fire localization and targeting demos at Sikorsky HQ in Stratford, Connecticut.
Photo couresy of RAIN.aero

Rain.aero, a developer of aerial “wildfire containment technology” along with Sikorsky, have been for some time now researching wildfire suppression autonomous response possibilities. The companies completed test flights over a year ago with an “autonomous helicopter” that can carry and drop water onto wildfires in early stages of initial attack.


Rain — and Sikorsky — demonstrate early detection and fast response to wildfires, with an autonomous Black Hawk helicopter. The two companies have completed flight tests demonstrating how a helicopter flying with Sikorsky MATRIX and Rain’s “Wildfire Mission Autonomy System” could be quickly launched for initial attack.

The flight demonstration was at Sikorsky headquarters in Stratford, Connecticut, with the “Optionally Piloted Black Hawk helicopter” flying in autonomous mode with Sikorsky safety pilots on board.

Maxwell Brodie
Maxwell Brodie

“In 2023, in collaboration with Sikorsky, we set out to prove that we could receive an alert about a possible wildfire, send commands to launch and fly an autonomous helicopter capable of moving a large amount of suppressant to a fire’s location, and then command the helicopter to accurately drop water onto the fire,” said Rain CEO Maxwell Brodie. “We are very pleased with the results that successfully demonstrate autonomous early detection and rapid response.”

What do you think about these developments? Are you a helicopter pilot, or helitack, or hotshot or other ground crew member, or lead plane pilot or ATGS ?

I don’t know enough about the air show environment to have a first-hand opinion on pilot-free helicopters in any role on any fire. I first off can’t imagine where the pilot-free RC helicopters might even be sited (on public land? Large ranches checkerboarded with BLM 40s? Western states private timber holdings? federal or state agency land? Wilderness areas?) and how vandalism possibilities likelihoods (let alone pilot-skill vandals or cyberhacked outside operators) for pre-positioned rotorcraft of any kind (let alone a Sikorsky) might be mitigated or prevented or acted upon …

Your thoughts?

New Bells in southern California

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department this week acquired Bell 412EPX helicopters, adding to their airborne resources for emergency response.  Three SUBARU Bell 412EPX helicopters were delivered, two to San Bernardino County and one to San Diego.

The Bell 412EPX has an internal weight of 12,200 lbs., external weight of 13,000 lbs., and the ability to carry 5,000 lbs. with its cargo hook.

In San Diego, the Sheriff’s aviation unit, Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies (ASTREA), completes nearly 6,000 public safety missions each year with its all-Bell fleet of emergency response helicopters, including four Bell 407GXis, three Bell 205s, and its newest addition of a SUBARU Bell 412EPX. ASTREA plans to use its new ship in conjunction with Cal Fire responding to wildfires in the region.

“We are working hard to have crews trained and ready for the upcoming fire season,” said Deputy Gary Kneeshaw, a pilot with San Diego County. “We have found the SUBARU Bell 412 EPX to be a very capable aircraft that is delivering on its promises.”

San Bernardino County is the largest county in the United States — over 20,000 square miles — and its Sheriff’s Department will use its two Bell 412EPX helicopters for law enforcement and emergency response including wildfires and search-and-rescue ops. Over 50 years ago, the Sheriff’s Aviation Unit began operations with two Bell 47Gs; the fleet now includes  17 aircraft.

“Our Air Rescue program is a critical component to providing safety to the residents of San Bernardino County,” said Lieutenant Brian Chambers with the Sheriff’s Department.

San Diego Sheriff Bell 412EPX photo by Lloyd Horgan
San Diego Sheriff Bell 412EPX photo by Lloyd Horgan

South Carolina National Guard helps out with Colombia fires

The South Carolina National Guard is providing assistance to Colombia, its State Partnership Program partner, as it faces dozens of wildfires. With as many as 30 active fires in and around Bogota in late January, the SC  National Guard has loaned Colombia multiple helicopter buckets, according to a report by Vertical Magazine.

“We are sorry our friends and state partners are experiencing significant fires this year impacting cities like Bogota,” said Maj. Gen. Van McCarty, adjutant general for the state. “The South Carolina National Guard stands committed to assist Colombia with helicopter buckets, which are an invaluable fire-retardant tool.”

South Carolina National Guard photo
South Carolina National Guard photo

The buckets on loan to the Republic of Colombia carry 700 gallons. The  partnership between the South Carolina National Guard and Colombia began in 2012. South Carolina ANG Lt. Col. Daniel Linkroum directs the state partnership program with Colombia.

“It was satisfying to get a call to support an immediate need and be able to respond with resources in short order,” he said. “It reaffirms the South Carolina National Guard’s commitment to our partner nation.”

South Carolina National Guard This effort has been years in the making, supported and sourced by the Civil Affairs and Humanitarian Assistance Directorate at U.S. Southern Command.

The Department of Defense State Partnership Program is a cooperative military-to-military exchange administered by the National Guard Bureau. It enables cooperation between U.S. National Guard units and foreign allies. The national program began in 1993 and has grown to include 100 different countries.



Colombian fire helicopters busy

Fires are burning across Colombia as the country’s Air Force fights toward containment with its Black Hawks fitted with Bambi buckets; the fires have recently burned over 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres).

Colombia’s fleet includes at least 10 UH-60A ex-US Army and 9 UH-60L helicopters (police) and 47 UH-60L and 7 S-70i Army ships.

Colombian Army Black Hawk
Colombian Army Black Hawk

Aerial Fire Magazine reported that much of the country is still on alert, and the director of the National Meteorological Institute (IDEAM), Ghisliane Echeverry Prieto said, “We have more than 900 municipalities threatened by forest fires, almost the entire country.”

Temperatures reached record highs at the end of 2023.

Ghisliane Echeverry Prieto - Colombia
Renowned researcher Ghisliane Echeverry Prieto took office before the Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development Francisco Canal. Photo Ministry of Environment.

Colombian president Gustavo Petro declared a state of emergency to secure additional funding for international assistance as the country’s firefighting assets reach their limits. Infoebae reported that during Prieto’s inauguration, Minister Francisco Canal highlighted her professional qualities.

NBCrightnow reported that more than 20 fires are burning in Colombia with record temperatures, even driving wildlife into urban areas. El Niño’s blamed for the high temperatures, drought, and other conditions exacerbating the fire danger. For months now Colombia has endured record high temperatures and drought, both expected to last into June. Many locations are suffering record highs of 40°C (about 105°F).


FAA blesses retractable tank for Chinook helicopters

Helitak Firefighting Equipment, a developer of firefighting tanks for helicopters located on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, has received an FAA Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for the FT-11K retractable aerial fire tank for CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

Aerial Fire Magazine reports that the FT-11K has been in development and testing for several years; with its retractable design, the tank can be fitted to any CH-47 with no modifications required. Together with its launch customer, Alaska-based Rotak Helicopter Services, it debuted at Heli-Expo 2023 in Atlanta and began testing last year in California, Idaho, and Arizona, before the granting of the STC this month.

According to Vertical Magazine, the FT-11K tank also does not take up any internal space to carry water or flame retardant. This video from a year ago shows off Helitak’s FT4250 Super Puma Fire Tank:


The FT-11K tank is now the only one in the marketplace that can carry more than 2500 gallons, the current maximum capacity of existing tanks. The CH-47 tank comes with both hydraulic and electric pump fill options, and it can be fitted or removed from in about a half hour.

The new FT-11K tank has a capacity of 2905 US gallons (11000 liters) that can be dropped in stages or in a single load. The tank can optionally carry a 132-gallon (500-liter) load of foam if needed. Tank fill time is about 60 seconds using the included hover fill pump. Empty weight of the tank is specified at 2,030 lbs., with full weight measured at 26,455 lbs. and a height of 14 inches (36 cm). Hover fill pump time is recorded at 2,641 gallons per minute.

“As a team, we are ecstatic to finally have the FT-11K tank certified by the FAA after many years of development and testing at our facility in Australia,” said Jason Schellaars, CEO of Helitak. “The hard work of the team at Rotak Helicopters assisted us in gaining the FAA STC for the product.” He said Helitak and the team are looking forward to the tank’s first season. “I am immensely proud of the work put in by over one hundred people in two countries that helped make this product a reality for the market.”

Here’s some clips from Day 1 of the Heli Expo last year in Atlanta, courtesy of AIN Media Group online:


Helitak will display the FT-11K at the 2024 Heli Expo in Anaheim, California, the last week of February. The company will also bring its FT- 1300-1800-2500-4500 tanks to Anaheim for the AS350, Bell Meduim, and UH-60 airframes.

For further information on this or any other Helitak Firefighting Equipment tank, you can contact sa***@he*****.au or check them out online at  helitak.com.au

Australia leases new Bell 204B helicopter

Australia’s Green Triangle Fire Alliance (GTFA) has acquired on a 3-year lease a new Bell 204B firefighting helicopter. Equipped with a 1,250-liter bucket — about 330 gallons — the 204B carries more water than the B2 Squirrel hired by GTFA in 2022.

The Border Watch reported that the Green Triangle’s timber plantation companies are investing in firefighting upgrades to increase protection for plantation estates, the natural environment, and the community. The nine forest companies in the GTFA will fund operations for as-needed locations in the region. An investment into floating collar tanks was also made, supplying water to the helicopter in areas with limited surface water.

GTFA General Manager Anthony Walsh said the helicopter’s 1,250-litre bucket could draw water from a variety of sources. “This helicopter is highly complementary to the fixed-wing firebombers that operate in the region,” Walsh said.

According to AirMed&Rescue, the helicopter is registered as VH-EJL and owned by Forest Air Helicopters out of New South Wales. Forest Air Helicopters provides Australia-wide aviation services and is based on the NSW/VIC border at Albury.

Green Triangle new helicopter

The Green Triangle [PDF] region is on the southern coast, spanning the border between South Australia and Victoria. The GTFA includes a broad-based lumber industry and thus is susceptible to an above-average summertime fire risk.

Green Triangle Fire Alliance

The helicopter was contracted by the government of Victoria; it will come on as a part of the Victorian fleet, based in Casterton for the 14-week summer fire season — unlike other aircraft that are usually relocated as needed. “Other aircraft may leave the region to attend fires elsewhere across Victoria and South Australia,” explained Walsh, “but this helicopter will remain at its Casterton base for the 14-week service period until March.” It’s expected that the new Bell 204B will also operate in South Australia.