TUMWATER – With fire season starting earlier each year and lasting longer, the state’s fleet of firefighting helicopters is being prepared for deployment across Washington.
The Department of Natural Resources’ eight Vietnam-era Bell UH-1H helicopters are older than the crews that fly them, but the acquisition price to the state is good, a no-cost loan from Uncle Sam. The department pays for fuel, operations and maintenance, which works out to about $1,600 an hour when they fly.
Dropping water on forest fires can be rugged work. But while these “Hueys” are old – the most senior helicopter in the DNR fleet came off the factory line in 1963 and did two tours in Vietnam, where it was shot down twice – they’re extremely reliable and spare parts are plentiful.
Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said Tuesday they are one of the reasons the state was able to keep 96 percent of the wildfires to 10 acres or less last year.
“We try to get on the fires as soon as we can,” Franz said while touring the department’s aviation maintenance hangar at the Olympia Regional Airport. “Part of it is getting our assets out early.”
The department also “pre-positions” helicopters and other equipment in areas throughout the state where wildfires are likely, and will send seven of the aircraft out on June 1. Four will be sent to Eastern Washington, to places like Deer Park, Colville and Omak, to be moved around as needed.
Although wildfire season traditionally starts May 15, Franz said it had arrived already, with a 300-acre fire in Okanogan two weeks ago and a 20-acre fire last week south of Olympia.
Last year’s destruction was relatively low in Washington compared to the historic fire seasons of 2014-15, but still about 400,000 acres burned, she said. This year started like last year, with more rain and a good snowpack, but that could mean there will be plenty of grass and other ground cover to grow tall in the spring and turn to fuel when it dries out in the summer.
“We’re hopeful we’re not going to see a fire season like 2014-15, but we don’t know at this time,” Franz said.
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