Spokane’s aerial firefighters wind down busy season
Aero-Flite, Aero Spray work to extend contractsAugust 31st, 2017
Perhaps not surprising given the smoke that blanketed the Inland Northwest for an extended period this summer, two companies that offer aerial fire-suppression services from bases here say their unique aircraft have been busy this season.
Aero Spray Inc., the Appleton, Minn.-based aerial firefighting service that began operating in Deer Park on a trial basis about nine years ago and now has a permanent facility there, has been much busier this season than last year in the Northwest—approaching the record level of business it had in 2015, a company representative says.
“This year we’re almost matching the number of fire suppression hours we had (then),” says Jamie Sargent, Aero Spray’s business development consultant. The company employs about 40 people overall, including about 10 here.
Sargent speculates that one reason for the busier fire season this year might be the heavy vegetation growth resulting from the Northwest’s long winter and wet spring, which created more fuel for fires when the vegetation eventually dried out due to arid summer weather.
Meanwhile, Aero-Flite Inc., which moved to Spokane International Airport from Kingman, Ariz., a couple of years ago, also has seen strong demand for its services and recently has had all 10 of its amphibious and land-based airtankers deployed, says Mike Lynn, the company’s director of flight operations.
“We’re kind of scattered all over the West right now, from Montana down into California,” Lynn says.
The company now employs about 125 people, up sharply from 30-some employees when it was based in Arizona, he says.
Aero Spray operates about 10 aircraft, most of them single-engine, amphibious “Fire Boss” model aircraft, made by Texas-based Air Tractor Inc. The Fire Boss uses special floats to scoop water from lakes, reservoirs, or rivers near wildfires. At the time of a recent interview with Sargent, it had five planes working in Washington under government contracts.
“This year, fire activity has been pretty intense in Montana as well,” Sargent says.
Along with the amphibious planes, the company has one airtanker with conventional landing gear that it uses to drop other types of fire retardant.
Aero Spray earlier this year was spun off under new ownership, separating from a family-owned enterprise focused on agricultural spraying, but it continues to operate under the same name and from headquarters in the same city in Minnesota. Importantly here, the ownership change doesn’t appear to have altered Aero Spray’s desire to maintain a strong Inland Northwest presence.
CEO Brett L’Esperance says, “Deer Park has been a key part of the company’s history and success. It’s allowed us to be able to pull the kind of talent we need. We’ve got a fantastic maintenance team based at Deer Park, and this is a very unique aircraft.”
Also, given Aero Spray’s established customers here, L’Esperance says, he views Deer Park as “still a great place for us to support and grow the business for some time to come.”
Aero Spray works under short-term contracts with agencies such as the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Washington state Department of Natural Resources, and the Idaho Department of Lands. The company’s leased Deer Park hangar reverts to a heavy aircraft maintenance emphasis around mid-October, when the fire season eases, and most of the company’s maintenance activity occurs there, Sargent says.
“The fleet has grown a little,” he says, with the company acquiring one new “Fire Boss” early this year and two early last year.
The company’s contracts typically run until the end of August, but it was anticipating earlier this month that its contracts probably would be extended to the end of September due to continuing demand for its services.
Sargent and L’Esperance say the company is continuing to pursue a corporate strategy of stitching together fire contracts around the country, with the goal of keeping its crews and aircraft in the field from mid-February through mid-November.
Nationally, Sargent says, the fire season tends to progress in a counter-clockwise fashion, starting in Florida, moving up through the Midwest and Minnesota, then Alaska, the Northwest, and lastly California, where Aero Spray has been seeking to expand its presence.
It has interagency agreements that enable it to help fight fires in Canada, where there also has been a lot of fire activity this season, but the provinces there have a lot of aerial firefighting resources of their own and haven’t requested much help from this side of the border, Sargent says.
Sargent and L’Esperance describe the “Fire Boss” plane—capable of scooping up more than 800 gallons of water in 30 seconds—as an aircraft that’s economical to operate and is best suited for use in rapid initial attacks on fires, rather than extended sorties over a long period of time.
“You won’t hear much about the fires we go to because they get knocked down pretty quickly,” L’Esperance asserts. Of the “Fire Boss” aircraft, he says, “Used effectively, it can keep small fires from becoming big ones.”
Aero-Flite, the company based at Spokane International Airport, operates two larger types of firefighting aircraft. Its fleet now includes four Canadair CL-415 amphibious planes capable of scooping up and dropping up to 1,600 gallons of water, and six 3,000-gallon Avro RJ 85 Type 1 land-based airtankers.
Lynn, the company’s flight operations director, says this season has been “fairly active” for Aero-Flite, on par in terms of hours flown with the last several years. The company’s busiest months are July, August, and September, although it, too, is trying to secure contracts that will keep it busy over a longer portion of the year. It operates both on “exclusive use” and “call when needed” contracts with the agencies it serves, he says.
“The challenging part of our business is supporting (the aircraft) out in the field, away from our base,” he says, adding, “We also have a smaller plane that we use to haul parts and people out to the aircraft.”
Lynn says, “I’ve been in it for 40 years. Probably the biggest change I’ve seen is what we call the urban interface. There are so many homes that are built in the woods, in the fire danger zone, I guess you could call it. That changes the dynamics of fighting fires.”