Flying on the Frontlines of the Chilean Fires
While the Chilean government has ended a state of emergency enacted in response to the worst wildfire season in the nation’s history, the work there is still not complete. According to the National Press, the Chilean wild fires have torched more than 900,000 acres—roughly four times the area of New York City—since January 15th.
Wildfires are normal during Chile’s hot, dry, summers, but this year the blazes were exceptionally fierce and destructive. Their firefighting forces were doing everything humanly possible to extinguish the flames, but their efforts were inadequate and half of their available aircraft was out of operation. They put out an urgent call for help and Helicopter Express quickly answered the call.
HX dispatched three modified Bell 205A-1 helicopters and our Kaman K-MAX along with 10 of our highly-trained employees, including a primary aerial firefighting pilot and a mechanic for each helicopter. We organized and paid for the use of a Volga-Dnepr AH-124- 100, the largest military transport aircraft in the world, to carry both our helicopters and our personnel.
Upon arrival in Chile, the helicopters were offloaded and positioned at Concepcion and Santiago. The Volga-Dnepr employees made things so easy for the HX team, and with their assistance we were ready to fly the moment we arrived.
Each helicopter engaged in water drops, averaging about six hours of flying per day. One of the Bell 205s is equipped with a 375-gallon capacity belly tank, while the other 205s use external 324-gallon Bambi buckets. The K-MAX is equipped with a 680-gallon capacity external Bambi Bucket.
While our helicopters have been deployed outside the U.S. in the past, this was the first time we have worked in Latin America. Flexibility was essential, as particular missions could quickly be diverted due to dense smoke or because people were in imminent danger of being overrun by a fire. Everyone involved had to work together to determine where and how to attack the fires safely and provide the best assistance for all firefighters and, in some cases, even residents on the ground. Because of the language barrier, we hired local interpreters to work with our pilots and the firefighters on our ground.
The destruction of the fires in Chile have been catastrophic, and we are proud to have offered some immediate relief to the people and places most affected by the devastation. When we perform missions outside of the United States, we not only help a country in need, we also represent our own country’s great legacy of providing humanitarian relief and service.
Under the agreement with CONAF, the helicopters will operate in-country for up to 100 days. If the contract is extended, Helicopter Express has the capability to extend the stay of two helicopters, with the other two returning to Georgia to resume operations under our US Forest Service contracts.
Helicopter Express is a member of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington, D.C. headquartered trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the US Forest Service, and other U.S. Government agencies with responsibility for wildlands protection.