Wildfires sow seeds of revenue for El Aero Services

Bryan Matthews, Elko helicopter base manager for El Aero Services, hoists a bucket full of seeds for rangeland burnt in last summer's Smith Ranch Fire near Jiggs.

Bryan Matthews, Elko helicopter base manager for El Aero Services, hoists a bucket full of seeds for rangeland burnt in last summer's Smith Ranch Fire near Jiggs.

A busy fire season means a busy winter for El Aero Services offices in Elko and Carson City.

El Aero began reseeding work following summer wildfires for the Bureau of Land Management in 1995, says John Kelly, El Aero’s chief pilot. The work has grown into the firm’s primary source of revenue during slow winter months.

El Aero most recently reseeded several thousand acres of rangeland scorched by the Smith Ranch Fire last July. The company dispersed 16,000 pounds of seed over 2,100 acres of rugged terrain northwest of Jiggs that’s best serviced by helicopter, Kelly says. El Aero also reseeded rangeland burnt by the 24,000-acre Bison Fire in the Pine Nut Mountains between Douglas and Lyon counties.

Depending on the area, the seed mixture contains different blends of sagebrush, bitterbrush and rangeland grasses. Seed buckets attacked via cable to the helicopters are calibrated to control flow rate. Flight paths are controlled by global satellite positioning, but it still tests a pilot’s mettle to ensure proper seed coverage, Kelly says.

“The most challenging thing for me is making sure the dispersal rate is correct,” he says. “You figure it out through dispersal rate, miles per hour and topography. If you are trying to put down 10 pounds per acre, you want it all to work out.”

The work is enough to keep El Aero pilots busy during slow winter months. El Aero’s primary business is charter services, flight instruction and aircraft rental. It operates out of small regional airports in Carson City and Elko.

Kelly says the firm branched out into reseeded work in the mid 1990s after purchasing a seeding bucket from an operator in Idaho. It’s added to its seeding equipment since then, most notably with the addition of GPS technology to give precise flight guidance. It’s also built five additional seeding buckets in-house that are used for various types of dispensing tasks.

“It is good winter work, and there’s not a whole lot of revenue stream at that time of the year,” Kelly says. “This has given us the opportunity to keep four (pilots) most of the time.”

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