In the Hot Seat
Canadian aircraft and crews hit the front lines as wildfire season heats up
Wednesday July 4th 2012 - by Kenneth I. Swartz
Fighting forest fires is a daunting task. Each summer, more than 250 aircraft are contracted to battle Canadian wildfires.
This “seasonal air force” includes the world’s largest and most modern water bomber and air tanker fleet; birddog, patrol and special-mission fixed-wing aircraft; and contract helicopters used for initial attack.
THE BIG PICTURE
Canada contains about 10 per cent of the world’s forests and about nine per cent of the world’s renewable water supply. According to the Canadian Forest Service, about 7,400 wildfires occur in Canada annually, with an average of 1.9 million hectares burned per year.
Government fire suppression budgets in Canada have ranged from $500 million to more than $1 billion a year during the last decade. Aircraft and helicopters represent one of the largest annual firefighting expenses, but the cost of an uncontained wildfire can be much greater.
In May 2011, the early season wildfire that ravaged Slave Lake, Alta., forced the evacuation of 7,000 people, destroyed 400 structures, burned one third of the town, and resulted in an estimated $742 million in insurance claims, making it the second-most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history (after the Ontario/Quebec ice storm of 1998).
Deaths from wildfires in Canada have been thankfully low, but the Black Saturday brush fires in Australia in February 2009 had a different outcome – 173 people killed, 400 injured and 4,500 square kilometres scorched.
“Our business is changing. Whether you call it climate change or global warming, it has impacted the fire business,” said Jeff Berry, superintendent of the BC Forest Service’s (BCFS) provincial air tanker program. “The fire season is longer, fires are more aggressive and spread rates are up.
“As a result, B.C. has been revising its tanker fleet strategy by adding faster and larger aircraft, equipping our aircraft with higher-flow tanks, and centralizing our aircraft dispatch system to increase efficiency, rather than simply adding more aircraft to the fleet.”
Elsewhere, other provinces are changing their fleet mix and methods to keep ahead of the wildfire threat.
AERIAL FIRE DETECTION
Flying aerial fire patrols is the oldest civil aviation profession in Canada. In fact, Canadian aviators have been providing firefighters with a little extra help from the sky since 1919.
In 1924, the Ontario Provincial Air Service (OPAS) was founded as the world’s first aerial fire management organization. The RCAF also operated a large fleet of fire detection aircraft into the early 1930s.
Ontario currently dispatches 12 Cessna 337G fire patrol aircraft, operated by Discovery Air Fire Services. SOPFEU, the provincial firefighting agency in Quebec, contracts 22 Cessna 182 RGs and six Cessna 337 aircraft for its patrols. Saskatchewan hires three fire patrol aircraft as well.
Several other provinces employ patrol aircraft as required to monitor remote areas and cover gaps in fire tower networks.
When it comes to controlling wildfires, “hit them hard and keep them small” is the mantra of first responders.
The “initial attack” philosophy emphasized early fire detection and the use of bombers and helicopters to quickly contain fires in remote areas. The United States has long relied on land-based air tankers to control fires, while Canada has historically used water bombers. In some provinces, both methods are used in a complementary fashion.
Helicopters are generally used to transport firefighters and their equipment to remote locations. British Columbia and Alberta both utilize Rapattack crews to rappel from a hovering helicopter, using specialized equipment and ropes. Rappelling is used in heavily forested or mountainous terrain. B.C. also operates the Parattack program, utilizing smokejumpers to rapidly reach extremely remote areas.
Today, 123 bomber aircraft form the backbone of Canada’s initial attack fleet – 77 water bombers and 46 air tankers.
The water bomber fleet includes about 60 Bombardier CL-215, 215T and 415 amphibians, 11 single-engine Air Tractor AT-802F Fire Bosses on amphibious Wipline floats, four amphibious DHC-6 Twin Otters, and two four-engine Martin Mars flying boats with a 27,276-litre tank capacity.
The air tanker fleet, which drops fire retardant, includes 16 Air Tractor AT-802Fs, five de Havilland S-2 Trackers and Conair Firecats, two Douglas DC-4s, 13 Convair 580s, and 10 Lockheed L-188 Electras, plus a few spare aircraft.
A colour-coded alert system is utilized to dispatch bombers and their bird dog aircraft. A red alert means an aircraft must be ready to take off in five minutes; a yellow alert means launch in 30 minutes; and a blue alert in 60 minutes.
All Canadian provinces, with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, use air attack officers (AAO) in bird dog, or lead, aircraft to coordinate the air attack. The AAO is an experienced wildfire-fighting specialist who will fly a “dummy” bombing run in the birddog aircraft, to demonstrate the exact spot where water or retardant must be dropped.
Eight provinces and territories own 60 per cent of the bomber fleet, with the remaining 40 per cent contracted from five large private companies. About 50 helicopters are on “exclusive use” contracts at the start of the fire season, with Ontario and Nova Scotia being the only provinces that own and fly their own firefighting helicopters.
The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) coordinates the sharing of equipment, personnel, and aircraft across the country. Other agreements with U.S. states have facilitated the north-south exchange of firefighting aircraft. The Incident Command System (ICS) is used at all major firefighting agencies in Canada, the U.S. and even Australia, and provides a standardized command and control system and procedures which allow aircrews to seamlessly and safely operate bombers in another jurisdiction on short notice.
GOVERNMENT FLEET RENEWAL
Since 2006, an estimated $500 million has been invested to renew the initial attack fleet, through the purchase of new purpose-built firefighting aircraft, re-engining CL-215s and conversions of retired airliners.
In the early 1980s, the federal government supported the sale of 49 CL-215s to eight provinces and territories to create a national firefighting fleet. In the 21st century, provinces have taken two different paths to modernize these CL-215s – new aircraft purchases and turbine conversions.
Quebec and Ontario were first off the mark in the mid-to-late 1990s, with orders for eight and nine new turboprop Bombardier 415s respectively.
Quebec operates 14 water bombers, the largest provincial water bomber fleet. Ontario operates 13 water bombers with four of its eight Eurocopter EC130/AS350 B2 helicopters also dedicated to initial attack.
In 2005, Saskatchewan launched a 10-year, $200 million plan to renew its firefighting aircraft. Bombardier re-launched its CL-215T conversion program in 2007, receiving orders for seven kits – four from Saskatchewan and three from Alberta.
“For Saskatchewan, taking our existing aircraft and upgrading them to CL-215Ts made sense,” said Denis Renaud, Saskatchewan’s director of aviation operations. “It wasn’t without risk and it took a great deal of effort, but the reward has been an excellent amphibious tanker that will serve our needs for the foreseeable future.”
Alberta’s first CL-215T was delivered in late 2010 and Saskatchewan’s first delivered in April 2011. Saskatchewan expects that the CL-215T will put 25 per cent more water on a fire than a CL-215 during a typical four-hour mission. Officials said in 2011 that the cost of each CL-215T was $20 million compared to about $32 million for a new aircraft.
The CL-215T conversions are being done by YXX Aerospace in Abbotsford, B.C., which is jointly-owned by the Conair Group Inc. and Aero-Flite, Inc., of Kingman, Ariz., the largest U.S. operator of CL-215s.
Also in 2005, Saskatchewan placed a $44 million order for four Convair 580A advanced air tankers. Five aircraft were delivered, including a replacement for one lost in a training exercise in 2006.
In October 2009, Newfoundland and Labrador announced an order for four new turboprop Bombardier 415s to replace four of its six CL-215s, in a deal valued at about $120 million.
“We decided to replace some of our CL-215s because of the growing shortage of avgas in remote areas of Newfoundland and Labrador, where we operate, and our concern regarding the dwindling number of companies that can overhaul the CL-215 engines,” said Glen Cooper, director of the provincial air services division.
In February 2010, Manitoba signed a contract to buy four Bombardier 415s.
“Manitoba had been considering the addition of newer firefighting aircraft to reduce the risk of operating a single aircraft model in a critical role,” explained provincial air services manager Ken Giesbrecht. “We wanted to have a newer fleet by replacing five older CL-215s.”
Newfoundland and Manitoba each received their first aircraft from the Bombardier Aerospace factory in North Bay, Ont., in 2010, with the last water bombers slated for delivery in 2012.
Most recently, in June 2012, Saskatchewan issued a new RFI (request for information) for the “lease to purchase” of additional CL-215T and Convair 580A aircraft.
COMMERCIAL FLEET RENEWAL
The commercial firefighting fleet is constantly under renewal.
In 2005, Air Spray (1967) Limited completed its transition from piston Douglas A-26 air tankers to four-engine turboprop Lockheed L-188s. This summer Air Spray has seven L-188 Electras on contract – three in Alberta, three in B.C. and one in the Yukon, with Turbo Commanders used as bird dog aircraft.
“We believe the Electra is the best air tanker,” said Lynn Hamilton, president of Air Spray. “It’s safe, fast and efficient, and Lockheed continues to support the aircraft.”
The company is adding its seventh and eighth Lockheed L-188 Electras, including tanker No. 98, which has received a gravel kit for its new contract in the Yukon. Air Spray’s next generation air tanker is in development, but it is not sharing any details.
The Conair Group is the largest private firefighting contractor in Canada, with a fleet of nearly 50 aircraft and 200 employees. The fleet includes one L-188 Electra, nine Convair 580s, two Firecats, six Turbo Commanders, four Aerostars, four Cessna 208B Caravans and a Cessna Citation (Model 525), plus a contract to operate Alberta’s fleet of CL-215T aircraft.
Conair flies 18 Air Tractor AT-802F single-engine air tankers for B.C., Alberta and the Yukon. Its Convair CV580s are contracted by B.C. (4), Alberta (2), and Alaska (2) with one spare.
Conair re-introduced an L-188 Electra in 2011, with a new 12,490-litre retardant delivery system, and is also developing an Avro RJ85 air tanker that will have a capacity of more than 11,000 litres. Aero Flite of Kingman, Ariz., of which Conair owns 51 per cent, was recently awarded a long-term contract as part of the U.S. Forest Service’s next generation air tanker competition with a single Avro RJ85 air tanker. The new air tanker is expected to fly in August 2012, and will enter service with a Cessna Citation Jet as a bird dog aircraft.
Buffalo Airways is introducing its first is introducing its first L-188 Electra air tanker in the NWT this summer, replacing a pair of Douglas DC-4s based at Hay River. So far this year, other Buffalo aircrews have been flying CL-215s in the NWT (4); in Turkey (2); and, for the first time, in South Korea.
The last Grumman TBM Avenger is scheduled to depart Forest Protection Limited (FPL) in July, on a ferry flight to its new home at the Shearwater Aviation Museum, as the Fredericton, N.B., company prepares its six Air Tractor AT-802Fs and one AT-802F Fire Boss for a new infestation of the spruce budworm in Quebec and New Brunswick, on top of its summer firefighting duties.
The FPL Fire Boss is paired with two AT-802F landplanes. All three aircraft launch with retardant on board, but the Fire Boss switches to the water bomber role to hold the fire while the landplanes are reloading with retardant.
Meanwhile, Coulson Air Tankers’ Hawaii Mars is on contract in B.C. and is standing by for any out-of-province calls, which came from Mexico and Alberta in 2011. The company’s Sikorsky S-61N helicopter fleet just completed its seventh fire season in Australia.
Ken Swartz is an award-winning helicopter industry journalist who has covered the market for 35 years. He has spent most of his career as an international marketing and media relations manager with airlines and a leading commercial aircraft manufacturer. He runs Aeromedia Communications, a marketing and PR agency, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you know?
The first Canadian passenger jet (second in the world after the British), the Avro Canada Jetliner, was flown in1949. Despite its advanced design, it never saw production and was later sold for scrap.