Washington, DC (PRWEB) November 27, 2012
The aerial firefighting industry is citing the risk of significant cutbacks in its ability to respond to wildland fires, if automatic Federal spending cuts become effective at year end.
“Should Congress and the Administration fail to reach a deficit reduction agreement, our fear is that funding for forest protection will be severely reduced, making it that much more difficult for some of our members to maintain the assets and manpower needed for wildland firefighting,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “The possibility of going over the fiscal cliff is a major concern of our members.”
Todd Petersen, Vice President Marketing, for Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters, warned that if Congress and the administration are unable to resolve their differences over cutting the deficit, it could lead to cutbacks in the number--and duration of-- exclusive use agreements with the US Forest Service (USFS), as well as call when needed contracts. Exclusive use contracts, Peterson explained, are a bread and butter item, usually running anywhere from 90 to 180 days per year--per aircraft. Normally, they are in effect over four years, based on three, one-year renewable options after the first year.
“If the contracts are cut, it could mean that we would have to take some of the helicopters that we have used for firefighting and redeploy them to other kinds of jobs,” Petersen noted. “Those helicopters and crews would no longer be available for firefighting, if they were needed.”
Stuart Taft, Chief Pilot for Lewiston, Idaho-based Hillcrest Aircraft Company, echoed this concern. “For us, the big question is whether the USFS would be forced to cut some of its exclusive use contracts, and rely more on call when needed aircraft in the event of a major wildfire,” he said. “We will have the opportunity to discuss this with the USFS at a meeting with the agency in Boise, Idaho, at the end of this month, and hopefully, we'll get a clearer picture of what they might do.” A major issue, said Taft, is whether there will be immediate, across the board cuts by the Forest Service, or whether they would defer cuts to certain programs to a later date. “It's very difficult to predict what might happen,” he remarked.
Taft pointed out that since the USFS is a major Hillcrest Aircraft Company customer, any contract funding reductions directly impacting the operator will mandate scaling back on staffing levels, as well as purchases from vendors. “If we fly less, we will not buy as much fuel; and we won't have to purchase as many repair parts. It could have a very big impact on a lot of operators and vendors.”
At Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, Chief Pilot Pete Gookin, stated that budget cutbacks could cause the government to consider greater use of military assets for wildland fire protection.
“It's only my opinion, but in an effort to appear that it's saving money, the government could try to replace at least some of the private contractors with the military,” Gookin said. “While that might look good to the taxpayers, military crews are (generally) not trained to fight fires, and their aircraft were not designed to be used for firefighting as their primary mission. Aerial firefighting was designed by civilian operators working with the US Forest Service, over the past 40 years. It's a civilian operation and it should stay that way.”
Columbia Helicopters, Hillcrest Aircraft Company, and Intermountain Helicopter are members of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.