BEND, Ore. (AP) — New U.S. Forest Service standards for some firefighting helicopters could require contractors to spend as much as $50,000 per helicopter to upgrade the aircraft.
Some in the helicopter industry say the high cost of upgrades could reduce the number of helicopters in the "call-when-needed" pool come fire season.
"My guess is they're just going to have less helicopters available to them," said John Henderson, owner of Henderson Aviation, which operates out of the Redmond Airport as well as Junction City. "The last couple years have been slower; they haven't had as many fires, so it's not a big deal. But if they have a bigger (fire) season. (tilde)"
Jennifer Jones, spokeswoman with the Forest Service's National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said it's too soon to determine if the new regulations will shrink the available helicopter fleet enough to cause concern.
Bids for the agency's solicitation for call-when-needed helicopters were due only last week for the Oregon and Washington region, so officials don't yet know if there will be any impact, she said. Jones added that she can't speculate on what the agency would do if it did find itself short of that particular type of helicopter during a busy fire season, but said it would be unlikely that the Forest Service would ease up on the safety requirements.
"We do plan pretty carefully for our aviation resources," she said, "being mindful that we have exclusive-use contracts as well."
The Forest Service has different kinds of contracts with helicopter operators. Exclusive-use contracts guarantee helicopter operators a certain amount of pay for a certain number of days during fire season. The Forest Service relies primarily on exclusive-use craft, Jones said. Call-when-needed contracts create a kind of reserve pool, in which the agency pays operators to make choppers available as needed to dump water or retardant on bigger fires or to transport firefighters.
The new standards apply only to call-when-needed contracts, Jones said. And they apply only to the Type III, smaller type of helicopters used for dropping between 100 and 300 gallons of retardant and transporting up to eight firefighters.
Type I and Type II craft can carry more people and drop more retardant, she said.
Last year in Region 6, which includes Oregon and Washington, the Forest Service spent $609,000 on Type III call-when-needed helicopters, while in 2009 the figure was $1.1 million, and in 2008 it was $2.6 million.
"The changes that we're making in our requirements are an effort to enhance safety," Jones said.
Helicopters that transport people will now be required to be equipped with wire-cutting kits, she said, which are designed to help protect the aircraft if it runs into power lines.
Other requirements, including strobe lights, a heated defroster unit and a specific cargo hook, are either for safety reasons, to increase efficiency or to comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations. The Forest Service also is trying to make requirements the same across the different types of contracts and different sizes of helicopters.
"We are trying to standardize in a lot of areas of our operations," Jones said.
But Henderson said that after a couple of slow firefighting seasons, as well as a slowdown in the economy, the new requirements mean he will only be able to put two helicopters under call-when-needed contracts, instead of four or five.
"All of a sudden, without any warning or input from the operators, they say, 'Here you go, you've got to spend 40,000 bucks if you want to stay with the contract,' " he said. "And the call-when-needed (contracts), you don't know if they're going to use you. (tilde) People like me have decided to not have as many aircraft on the call-when-needed contract."
The upgrades will probably cost about $40,000 for one helicopter, and about $10,000 for another, he said — and he'll have to compensate for that additional cost by raising the price he charges the Forest Service by about 10 percent. Plus, with fewer helicopters on standby, he will probably hire fewer pilots this summer. His company also offers imaging and mapping services, private transportation and more, according to its website.
Henderson said that the requirements don't make sense to him — wire cutters have been around for 25 years but haven't been necessary before, he said, and there's no safety benefit for things like adding a certain kind of cargo hook or having specific buckets for water and retardant.
Mark Gibson, general manager of Timberland Logging in Ashland, said he's in the same boat as Henderson. He's been fighting fires with helicopters since about 1985, he said, and usually runs three helicopters under a call-when-needed contract. But he doesn't know how many he will run this year.
"The upgrades could cost anywhere from $15,000 to maybe $50,000 per helicopter," he said, noting that he estimates about 70 percent to 80 percent of the call-when-needed fleet would need the costly upgrades.
And because the operators don't have any guarantee of how many days the USFS will pay for use of their helicopters, it's hard to determine if the upgrades are worth it.
The Forest Service is his customer, Gibson said, and he recognizes that he needs to do what the customer asks. But Gibson said he's talked with others who are considering cutting back the number of helicopters they put under call-when-needed contracts.
"In some ways, it could be shortsighted for the Forest Service," he said, "if in fact they lose a number of helicopters they can call on when they do have another bad fire season."