Fleet of firefighting helicopters grows with wildfire worries

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- 2014 saw a fire season record for Washington state with homes burned and people displaced. The impacts are still being felt. That happened without the state being under an emergency drought declaration; this year Washington is, from the Idaho state line to the Pacific Ocean.

And concern is growing with the expected onset of an early fire season. June is usually a wet and cool month. They don't call it "Junuary" for nothing. But not this year. Despite a few rainy days to start the month, the weekend of June 6 and 7 is forecast to see temperatures on the west side of the state in the mid 80s and temperatures east of the Cascade Mountains pushing 100.

Beyond that, Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark says his department is expecting a warmer and drier summer in addition to record low snow pack.

One tool now at the ready is a new firefighting helicopter. The Department of Natural Resources is getting its eighth UH-1 Huey helicopter just in time. DNR has its own team of A&P Mechanics who turn former U.S. Army helicopters into " good as new" aerial firefighters for about 1/10th the cost of a brand new aircraft of similar capabilities.

Last year, the department only had seven helicopters. The goal is to maintain at least six operational aircraft split between both sides of the state for dispatch at any given time during fire season.

Goldmark says the department didn't have enough last season. The eighth helicopter makes the system much more reliable. In addition, DNR is trying to nail down contracts with three privately owned water bombers. One is done, but two more planes need to be negotiated and there is competition from other states and agencies.

One big worry is that the drought could bring a major wildfire to the heavily forested west side of the state. Prior to last year, the state's record wildfire was the 1902 Yacolt Burn, which happened in western Washington.


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