OLYMPIA — Just days before a series of deadly, record-setting wildfires began exploding across Washington, the acting chief pilot for the state’s wildfire-attack helicopters wrote a letter to his superiors.
Unfilled pilot positions were grounding some helicopters, John Adolphson wrote to senior staff at the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Of the agency’s eight helicopters, “Right now we can only fly between 4-5 DNR helicopters because we don’t have the pilots,” Adolphson wrote in a letter sent Aug. 11 and obtained by The Seattle Times.
Adolphson argued low pay was making it hard to recruit pilots, and the state should spend some of the money it uses to contract for additional helicopters to beef up its own staff.
Whether the shortage hampered the summer’s wildfire battle isn’t easy to gauge, but the concerns come as national, state and local firefighting resources have been outstripped by the unprecedented blazes.
And in the long term, wildfires in the state are projected to worsen due to climate change, forestland littered with fuel and more homes in and around wildland areas.
DNR representatives say the agency is trying to recruit pilots nationally and there are some possible job candidates, but four of the agency’s 12 pilot positions are currently unfilled.
DNR’s aircraft — Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Hueys” that became known during the Vietnam War — are most often used in the initial attack, to keep new fires from spreading, but they’re also used on the large fires. Pilots can be on call seven days a week during the season, said Bob Johnson, the agency’s wildfire division manager. In the offseason, he added, they focus on training and safety-protocol work and are on call less often.
Since the agency’s eight helicopters require scheduled maintenance, DNR’s goal is to be able to fly six at a time — seven if needed in an emergency, according to Johnson.
While DNR had days this season when it flew six and seven helicopters, Johnson said the agency has flown just four or five of its own aircraft because of staffing.
In one case, a pilot had to leave duty for a family emergency — resulting in a grounded helicopter, Johnson said. Adolphson himself is an example of the shortage. He retired in 2014, but was asked to come back to be the agency’s acting chief pilot, he said.
Johnson said it’s difficult to find and recruit pilots with necessary experience, saying “They’re not around every tree out there.”
A posted job opening for a pilot describes the job as paying hourly and a “part-time, year round position with full-time schedule during fire season and part-time schedule during off season.”
Although pilots can make overtime during fire season, they aren’t earning as much money in the off-season, when they aren’t on call.
The state’s salary database shows how much pilot pay varies, depending on the fire season.
One pilot, for example, made about $54,400 in one year and about $78,100 the next year. Another pilot’s annual pay over a four-year period ranged from about $42,500 to about $63,600, according to the database.
In his letter, Adolphson suggests paying pilots like teachers, with a yearly salary and “incentives for superior qualifications.”
“A salary range from $6000-$7500/month with benefits will keep the pilots we have and draw the pilots we need for the future,” Adolphson wrote. “This agency can be a place that has no turnover. California and Montana have done it.”
DNR has “been having conversations with John and our pilots” about the concerns, according to Johnson.
Pilots recently also received a 5.5 percent raise, according to Sandra Kaiser, DNR spokeswoman.
And, “when it comes to how many pilots we need, that’s an ongoing dialogue we’re having with our chief pilot,” Johnson said.
Representatives of wildfire agencies in California and Montana say they are not experiencing a pilot shortage.
Cal Fire, the wildfire aviation program for California, has had turnover recently in its stable of 24 pilots, “but those positions have been quickly filled,” said spokesman Daniel Berlant.
Ditto at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
“We’ve been able to fill whatever pilot vacancy we’ve had,” said Bob Harrington of the department’s Forestry Division. “It just always hasn’t been as quickly as we’d like.”
Both Berlant and Harrington say their pilot rosters are fully staffed at the moment.
In Montana, full-time pilots have an annual base pay of $65,000, according to Harrington.
The base pay for California pilots ranges from $5,347 to $6,875 per month — or $64,164 to $82,500 per year, according to that state’s salary schedule.
Neal Laugle of the Oregon Department of Forestry says his agency keeps contracts for helicopters and doesn’t have staff pilots.
One reason it’s hard to find qualified job candidates, Laugle says, is that the Vietnam-era pilots trained to fly the UH-1 Hueys are getting to retirement age. And newer pilots don’t encounter the Hueys as often or in military service.
“We’ve kind of lost that … knowledge from those Vietnam-era pilots,” said Laugle.
In his letter, Adolphson also expressed concern that the state contracted to use additional helicopters this year, rather than using that money to keep its own aircraft fully staffed.
The state contracted two helicopters this season, according to the DNR, but hasn’t yet tallied up how much they have cost.
A 2011 state study found that on a per-hour basis, it cost DNR less to fly its own helicopters than states paid to contract out for helicopters.
DNR helicopters — which have been acquired for little cost from a federal surplus program — cost an average $2,750 per hour to operate.
By comparison, Oregon paid approximately $6,696 per hour for contract helicopters, according to a study by Washington state’s Joint Legislative Audit & Review Committee.