Public Service

Columbia Helicopters Scrambled Available Aircraft to Fight California Wildfires

By Frank Wolfe | November 15, 2018
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Columbia Model CH-47D Chinook dropping water with a 2,800 gallons capacity.

Columbia Model CH-47D Chinook dropping water with a 2,800 gallons capacity. Photo courtesy of Columbia Helicopters

Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters said Nov. 14 it has put all of its available iron in the air to help fight the wildfires in northern and southern California.

After fires broke out over the past week, Columbia scrambled five Chinooks — three Boeing CH-47Ds and two Boeing Model 234s.


Two of the CH-47Ds are fighting the Woolsey Fire in southern California, while one CH-47D and the two 234s are fighting the Camp Fire in northern California.

Keith Saylor, director of commercial operations for Columbia Helicopters, said that the company "over-crewed our aircraft so we’re able to fly every available minute of the day without worrying about exceeding the mandatory crew rest periods.”

Nearly 9,000 firefighters, fixed-wing aircraft, ground equipment and 45 helicopters, including Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks, UH-60A Utility Hawks, Boeing CH-47s and Model 234s, Bell UH-1s and Sikorsky S-64 Skycranes, have battled three wildfires across California, including Camp Fire, which has killed 48 people and is on record as the deadliest fire in state history.

A number of companies have sent their helicopters to help in tamping down the fires, including Columbia Helicopters, PJ Helicopters, Erickson, Helimax Aviation and CHI Aviation.

As with other fires, the operational tempo and the density of aircraft fighting the fires have been challenging at times for air crews, but Cal Fire's Boeing OV-10A air tactical fixed-wing aircraft have functioned to de-conflict airspace.

Operating on multiple radio air-to-air and air-to-ground frequencies is easier on co-piloted rotorcraft, such as the CH-47Ds and 234s, according to helicopter analysts. Helicopter firefighting crews are able to time their water drops through radio coordination — a timing reflected in the saying, "Out of the dip, off the drop." After one helo picks up flame retardant or water, the pilot calls in to say that the helo is "out of the dip." At that time, a helicopter fighting the fire will know to come "off the drop" to give the newly re-hydrated helicopter room to operate.

Three of Columbia Helicopters' rotorcraft are using external, Bambi buckets by SEI Industries Ltd., including one CH-47D that used the Pacific Ocean Nov. 14 to re-hydrate to fight the Woolsey Fire. The other Columbia CH-47D in southern California was dropping water from its internal tank after using Lake Sherwood to re-hydrate.

The CH-47Ds have a 2,800-gallon internal tank capacity, a 2,600-gallon bucket capacity and an ability to hold foam, gel and flame retardant, in addition to water.

Carried up to 200 feet below a helicopter, Bambi buckets permit pilots to re-hydrate from streams or ponds as shallow as 18 inches, while pilots of helos using external or internal firefighting water tanks can refill the tanks using powered snorkels or by skimming across the surface of a body of water, according to Helicopter Association International (HAI).

Dispersion of water or retardant is flexible, as pilots are able to drop all at once, open and close the gates to create a series of smaller drops, or slightly open the gate while in forward flight to create a fire line, HAI said.

HAI President Matt Zuccaro said in a statement that "at the end of the day, there is no better tool for fighting fires than helicopters."

“However, while helicopters play a vital role in battling wildland fires, we gratefully acknowledge that it is the crews on the ground — the men and women out on the lines — who actually put out the fires," he said.

Zuccaro said that helicopters also are important in fire recovery efforts, as they will fly reseeding operations over burned areas in southern California to promote the rapid growth of grasses and other plants to mitigate future mudslides, while helicopters may aid in harvesting northern California burned timber that may have some commercial value. The harvest would prevent additional damage to slopes and provide additional funds for recovery efforts, according to HAI. In addition, rotorcraft "play a vital role  in reestablishing infrastructure elements, such as powerline towers and water flumes," the group said.

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