Crew members from Coulson Aviation prepare two Sikorsky S-61 helicopters at an airfield in Los Leones, Chihuahua, Mexico for an overseas flight to Bolivia, where they will be tasked to fight forest fires in the Amazon rainforests. PHOTO COURTESY COULSON AVIATION

B.C. aviation company sends helicopters to fight fires in Amazon

Three helicopters from Coulson Aviation are enroute to Bolivia under temporary contract

Two aircraft from a Canadian aviation company are enroute to Bolivia to help fight forest fires that have devastated the Amazon rainforest this summer.

Coulson Aviation, a global aviation company based in Port Alberni, B.C. signed an agreement last week with the Bolivian government to send helicopters to help with firefighting in the Amazon. Coulson has sent two Sikorsky S-61 helicopters with the promise of a third aircraft to Santa Cruz, Bolivia in South America, where an estimated 165,000 fires are burning.

They are the first Canadian company to send aircraft to help fight the Amazon fires.

READ: G7 leaders reach deal to offer help to fight wildfires in Amazon rainforest

“We are honoured that the Bolivian government has chosen to work with Coulson Aviation in order to help offer support during their time of crisis,” Coulson Aviation’s president and CEO, Wayne Coulson, said in a statement.

One helicopter was in Yakima, Wash. and the other was in Elko, Nevada; they were both flown to San Bernardino, Calif., to load up and left Sunday, Sept. 1 for the first leg of their trip. They have made stops in Mexico and Costa Rica and were in Panama City by Tuesday, Sept. 3. Foster Coulson expects the aircraft to arrive in Santa Cruz by Thursday, where he will greet them.

The company has also rented an Antonov transport aircraft to ferry one of their CH-47 Chinook helitankers to Bolivia, also arriving on Thursday.

READ: Canada offers $15M, water bombers on top of G7 help to fight Amazon wildfires

At 5.5 million square kilometres, the Amazon rainforest covers an area more than five times the size of Ontario. About two-thirds of it lies in Brazil but it extends into several neighbouring countries, including Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.

The region is known as the “lungs of the planet” because it produces one-fifth of Earth’s oxygen supply. It also works as a significant carbon sink, absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide every year.

Foster Coulson said he has been in Bolivia for the past three years developing opportunities for Coulson Aviation, so it made sense for their company to offer its aerial firefighting services. They have a 15-day contract with the Bolivian government with possible extensions as necessary.

“We have the three helicopters and hopefully that will give them further support they require,” he said. “The federal Government of Canada has really stepped up to support us and make this happen.”

The permits, arrangements for fuel stops and logistics of moving three aircraft from three different locations to South America has been challenging, he added. Coulson will have 18 crew members including Foster stationed in Bolivia.

Coulsons’ S-61s have been in use elsewhere around the world; the first aircraft they sent overseas was an S-61 Sikorsky to Australia, where Coulson aircraft have been used for years to help fight fires in Victoria State and elsewhere in that country. Australia has also put the first of Coulsons’ 737 Fireliners into operation.

The S-61s will head to Australia once they are no longer needed in Bolivia, Coulson said.

Coulson Aviation has converted two 737s into Fireliners capable of dropping either water or fire suppression material, as well as transporting crew. A third Fireliner is undergoing a conversion at the Coulson hangar at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport.

Despite their aircraft being in demand around the world, Coulson Aviation’s fleet of firefighting aircraft does not have a Canadian contract. “We do business everywhere else in the world and we still haven’t managed to support the B.C. Fire Service,” Coulson said.

“We hope one of these days we’ll get to support B.C. We would really love to continue to support our province but at the end of the day we have to go where we’re wanted. If that’s 5,000 nautical miles away in Bolivia, then that’s where we have to go.”

— With files from Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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One of Coulson Aviation’s Sikorsky S-61 helicopters flies enroute to Costa Rica, one of its stops on the way to Bolivia to fight forest fires in the Amazon. PHOTO COURTESY COULSON AVIATION

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