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Climate change brings revamped wildfire suppression tactics

'You can effect change in a short period of time because the power of the fleet is incredible,' says former B.C. Wildfire Service air attack pilot

Out of necessity, British Columbia has become one of the world leaders in fighting wildfires.

B.C. might well stand for Beyond Crispy if not for the B.C. Wildfire Service and its six regional fire centres that coordinate all of the province’s forest fire suppression efforts to utilize strategies the service has developed over its 121-year history,

Because our forests are so thick and inaccessible from the ground, the province relies on aerial firefighting to keep fires from growing into huge monsters that consume everything in their path and that job of conducting aerial attacks has become more challenging in recent years due to hotter weather, lower humidity, longer and smokier fire seasons and an ever-present amount of fuel to feed fires.

Michael Benson knows as well as anyone in the province what it’s like to stare into the mouth of a fiery forest beast and turn on the extinguisher.

Prior to joining Conair Aerial Firefighting in April as the company’s the director of business development he spent 17 years flying with the BC Wildfire Service as an air attack officer. For seven of those years he led the provincial air tanker program and he says that despite the increasing threat of wildfires the province is in good hands.

“From my perspective, British Columbia has the most advanced air tanker program in the world and the power of the fleet is immense,” said Benson, from his base in Abbotsford. “We have a lot of modern airplanes, a lot of speed, it’s quite an amazing fleet. Most people in B.C. just don’t know how fortunate we are to have such a mighty fleet and a competent wildfire agency that is managing the fleet.”

Conair has 70 firefighting aircraft, 29 of which are based in B.C., and is the world’s largest privately-owned fixed-wing aerial firefighting fleet, operating in Canada the U.S., Australia and France.

Benson says other provinces are having to catch up to B.C.’s firefighting equipment and labour force capacity. Fire season started earlier this year in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and more countries are facing similar wildfire battles brought on by climate change.

“One of the characteristics of this year is it wasn’t just B.C. that was busy, much of Canada was busy at the same time and that creates some real challenges in that resources are shared across Canada,” said Benson. “Because the demand was so high nationally it was difficult for any agency to free up their resources and help another agency.

“We have been lucky that in the USA it’s been an unusually slow season for them this year, so there has been some added capacity for them to come up to Canada that in a normal season would not have been there.”

Five of the most destructive fire seasons ever in B.C. have happened in the past 10 years and with hotter summers and drier air fires are now burning more intensely. Up to 2014 land-based tankers worked alongside helicopters as the go-to aerial resource for the BCWS, dumping loads of retardant onto the forest creating a retardant perimeter that slowed the flames, allowing ground firefighters time to create  containment lines. The bright red colour enables pilots the ability to see the line from the air tagging each drop onto the next to ensure no spaces for fire to escape through. The mixture of water, phosphates and gum thickener sticks to the trees and ground cover and retains its fire suppression properties for days until it rained.

But hotter temperatures, lower humidity, longer periods of drought, high winds and an abundance of dry fuel create extreme wildfires, allowing spot fires to jump containment lines and that prompted BCWS to adopt a balanced-fleet approach to aerial firefighting that utilizes a variety of aircraft types and sizes.

Amphibious waterbombers that swoop down to lakes or rivers to take in water are now used alongside land-based tankers loaded with retardant. The skimmers fly directly over the fire to dump their suppressant (water and foam) on the flames while the land-based tankers skirt the outer edges of the fire with retardant to create containment lines. Once those lines are complete, the land tanker is free to go to another fire, while the water bombers continue to dump water to cool the forest for ground crews.

Prince George is the base for five Conair aircraft for a portion of the season – a Cessna 208 Grand Caravan birddog that flies ahead of the tankers looking for hazards is used to coordinate aerial attacks and provide air traffic control - and four Air Tractor AT-802AF Fire Boss waterbombers.

“Those waterbombers and the land-based air tankers work very well together in harmony, so for that reason it’s not uncommon to get 10 or 12 airplanes on one fire,” said Benson. “The BCWS will move these assets around the province as they see fit and will do that throughout the day. You may start your day in Kamloops and end your day in Fort St. John, having already been to Vancouver Island. The aircraft are that quick and nimble.”

Benson, who spent 10 years as a BCWS ground firefighter, has had his share of hair-raising incidents coordinating the tanker action over burning forests and billowing smoke that sometimes create localized weather systems, producing lightning and hail.

“The sheer energy being released by a large wildfire is absolutely amazing - you can be at a real high altitude, and you’ll see enormous branches just floating through the air just from convection,” he said. “Hot air rising causes its own wind patterns onsite on the fire and with all that air rising quickly you see some bizarre things floating in the air.

“For me, I think it’s the coolest job out there. Working for an air tanker program you can effect change in a short period of time because the power of the fleet is incredible. The capability to have 15 or 20 airplanes on your fire in a short period of time gives you the chance to contain the fire and buy time for the hard-working ground firefighters to arrive and actually extinguish the fire.”

Conair’s 100 pilots spend hundreds of hours preparing for fire season using the company’s integrated simulator mission training system, which has six flight training units connected together. 

“You’re seeing fire, flying multiple aircraft in that complex airspace, getting used to all the procedures of firefighting fully integrated in a simulated environment so on Day 1 when you come out of the gates in the spring, you’re prepared for the first fire,” said Benson.

At its base in Abbotsford, Conair takes De Havilland Dash 8-400 two-engine turbo prop planes more commonly used for carrying passengers and in 75 days converts them into land-based tankers capable of delivering 10,000-litre payloads.

They offer more than double the fuel efficiency of conventional large tankers and the loaded cruising speed for a Dash 8 is 360 knots (666 kilometres per hour), faster than most jets over distances less than 300 kilometres. First introduced as an airtanker in 2020 in Australia, there are 19 Dash 8-400s flying firefighting missions around the world. Eight are owned and operated by France, built in Canada by Conair, with the rest operating in Conair’s fleet, four of which are on contract to the BCWS this fire season.

Check out these three videos on Vimeo.

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