Fighting Wildfires

Jul 15, 2011

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Canada, Australia and the U.S. are the top three nations in terms of protecting forests and grasslands from fire. Advanced technologies have improved the effectiveness of the annual “war,” however, wildfires still cause considerable destruction. According to the Winnipeg-based Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), there were 88,939 wildfires between 1999 and 2009 that caused destruction across almost 20 million hectares – an area equivalent to nearly one-fifth of Ontario.

My. McLean by Lillooet, B.C. ablaze in July 2009

A remarkable evolution
Forestry is an important part of the Canadian economy; sales total $30 billion annually. Given its vast, forested regions – about 42% of Canada or 4.17 million square kilometres is covered with forests – and the many people who have worked in forestry or related industries since before Confederation, it is not surprising that Canadians have been proactive about fighting wildfires for generations. On September 27, 1919, the Victoria Times published a news report about a private pilot who spotted a forest fire while flying over ­Duncan, British Columbia. He landed and reported the fire’s location to a ranger, who mustered men and equipment to extinguish the blaze. Today, forest protection authorities learn of wildfires from a variety of sources, including pilots, outdoor enthusiasts, and satellite imagery.

With innumerable lakes and rivers and thousands of miles of coastline, but relatively few airports in Canada for much of the 20th century, seaplanes such as the Vickers Vedette Flying Boat and de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane on floats were initially used for aerial wildfire patrols. Starting in the mid-1930s, rugged aircraft designed for the Canadian hinterland like the Noorduyn Norseman and de Havilland Beaver were employed to not only search for ­wildfires, but also transport firefighters and their equipment. In the 21st century, large turboprop airplanes and jetliners move firefighting personnel and their gear around the country.

For decades, Canadians have been inventive in terms of developing aerial fire suppression systems. For example, in August 1945 a Norseman was modified with water pickup and bombing controls and used to attack a fire near Temagami, Ontario. A few years later, 5-gallon waterproof bags of water were dumped through the ­camera hatch of an Ontario Provincial Air Service Beaver airplane (with no appreciable effect on the fire, however). Fast-forward to the summer of 2010 when dozens of air tankers – most designed and built or modified in Canada – and helicopters dropped water, foam, or chemical fire retardant on hundreds of wildfires in Canada (in B.C. alone there were 1,600).

Thynne Mountain Forest fire near Brookmere, B.C. in August 2009.

Provincial/territorial and national agencies
All provincial and most territorial governments have a forest or wildlands protection agency. In most parts of Canada, wildfire season is between April and September (sometimes extending to October). Occasionally, the number of wildfires in a province or territory is greater than the firefighting resources available in the jurisdiction. Additional resources are brought in from other parts of Canada, and less frequently, from the United States and other nations.

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) provides operational fire-control and management services in wilderness areas. In addition to coordinating services for all of the provinces, ­territories and the federal fire management agencies, CIFFC also coordinates the sharing of wildland firefighting resources with the United States and other countries.

A Diplomatic Note signed by the governments of Canada and the U.S. authorizes cross-border sharing of fire suppression resources. The Canada/United States Reciprocal Forest Fire Fighting Arrangement and other exemptions “allows for quick movement of resources through Customs,” explains CIFFC. The ability to rapidly deploy firefighting resources to either country is crucial, particularly during a severe fire season where resource-sharing is greatly needed. The cross-border agreements detail which firefighting resources can be shared, how they will be made available, what costs will be involved, and the conditions for their return.

Hundreds of Canadian aircraft are available to fight wildfires with water, aqueous foam and chemical retardant.

Within Canada, resources to fight wildfires are shared on a formal basis under the Canadian Interagency Mutual Aid Resources Sharing (MARS) Agreement, which covers three main types of resources: personnel, aircraft, and other equipment. The CIFFC’s 2009 report notes its Coordination Centre in Winnipeg processed 167 Resource Request Orders (RROs) from forest protection agencies. These involved 2,772 personnel, 24 “skimmer” aircraft (airplanes that scoop up water while flying across – “skimming” the surface of – a large body of water), five land-based air tankers, 1,000 pump kits, 18,400 lengths of hose, 1,180 sprinkler heads, three value protection units, and other miscellaneous equipment.

Firefighting “air force”
There are more than 100 aircraft used to fight wildfires in Canada, including dozens of large air tankers. The governments of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia each operate a fleet of firefighting aircraft, entirely fixed-wing in most cases (Nova Scotia’s fleet is comprised solely of helicopters). Alberta and the Northwest Territories have air tankers operated by companies in partnership with the government. British Columbia and the Yukon contract air tanker services from Canadian companies such as Conair Aviation, Buffalo Airways and Air Spray. In many regions, helicopter operators are hired to provide fire suppression and operations support, such as transporting initial attack firefighters and their equipment.

Each air tanker group used to combat wildfires consists of one “bird-dog” airplane and one or more tankers. In the 1940s, the U.S. Army nicknamed its wildfire patrols and firefighting support planes “bird-dogs” (a hunting dog trained to locate and retrieve birds). The term has been applied to fixed-wing aircraft used to coordinate aerial firefighting ever since.

In June, the B.C. Wildfire Management Branch brought back the world’s largest aerial “fire truck,” the Mighty ­Martin Mars – a skimmer-type water bomber – to help douse some of the hundreds of wildfires in the province. Two Martin Mars aircraft are owned and operated by Coulson Flying Tankers of Port Alberni, B.C. These ­massive flying boats, which date back to the Second World War, have a 60-metre wingspan, and can drop 27,216 litres of aqueous foam as often as every seven minutes.

“We’ve been away for three years, working with folks in southern California, and we’ve made significant changes to the aircraft,” said Wayne Coulson, Chief Executive Officer of Coulson Flying Tankers, in an interview with CBC News. For years, the bombers were based on Vancouver Island’s Sproat Lake, near Port Alberni. Jeff Berry of the Kamloops, B.C. Fire Centre added: “Part of what we’re doing with the Mars [water bomber] this year is research. We want to see if the addition of this polymer into the water is going to help give those people on the ground a little more time.”

Contractor and government aircraft are used to wage an annual "war" on wildfires.

The annual “war” on wildfires
The initial attack on a fire begins when the forest protection agency coordination centre notifies a tanker group to launch. The first aircraft to depart is the “bird-dog”; onboard is the pilot and a forest service Air Attack Officer. The pilot circles at 1,500 to 2,000 feet, allowing the officer to assess the fire, develop an attack strategy, look for structures and hazards, and select the first target and bombing run direction. The “bird-dog” then descends to about 150 feet above the trees to conduct an inspection of the tankers’ “bombing” run. At low level, the “bird-dog” team checks for hydro lines, rises in terrain, and other hazards, and notes the turbulence and visibility on the approach to the fire and over it. This information is then communicated to the tanker pilots.

As the “bird-dog” air crew work, the “skimmers” take-off and head toward a lake or other body of water to fill their internal tanks. The time required to fill depends on the aircraft. For example, the Canadair CL-415 water bomber takes about 10 to 12 seconds. The water is usually mixed with a gel concentrate that creates a fire-suppressing foam. Land-based tanker aircraft are typically filled with a red chemical retardant, which acts longer than the foam.

A temporary flight control zone is established around the fire up to 3,000 feet, and the “bird-dog” team controls firefighting aircraft in that zone. Before the tankers commence their run, the “bird-dog” climbs to 500 feet above the run altitude to observe the tankers’ work and direct ground firefighting activities.

“Heli-attack” aircraft carrying initial attack firefighters and their equipment arrive early on. As the pilot hovers close to the ground, firefighters jump out to do “battle.” In mountainous areas, they sometimes have to rappel down to the ground. As the “war” on the wildfire progresses, reconnaissance and mapping aircraft fly above the “bird-dog.”

When a wildfire is larger than five hectares, airspace management becomes increasingly complex and different tactics are used. The preferred tactic is crosswind runs across the head of the fire to stop its advance. Low visibility in smoke and turbulence from the heat can make crosswind runs impossible, in which case the air attack starts at the rear of the fire and works up its flanks to cut off the head.

The Government of Quebec operates a Canadair CL-415 water bomber simulator to train pilots and help them stay proficient.

Advanced technologies
An increasing number of Canadian “bird-dog” aircraft are equipped with Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), which allows the Air Attack Officer to see through the smoke and better determine the size of the fire and direction of its advance. Onboard systems record FLIR and video images and transmit data about the fire to base.

Five years ago, staff from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources’ Aviation and Forest Fire Management team began testing night vision technology for fire detection and management applications such as precise mapping of active fires. Night vision goggles (NVG’s) have been used during emergency extractions of firefighters. NVG’s increase illumination, which can be faint on moonless and overcast nights, by up to 50,000 times. They help pilots to spot even small campfires from several kilometres away.

Whether at night or during the day, forest protection agency coordinators need to be able to track firefighting aircraft in order to orchestrate operations and maximize resource usage. To that end, Automated Flight Following (AFF) was created a generation ago in B.C., home to some of the world’s most challenging aerial firefighting due to the terrain. Over the past 20 years, AFF has evolved and been exported to jurisdictions outside of British Columbia. Its main advantages are aircraft tracking in near-real-time via satellites and enhanced situational awareness, a crucial part of effective aviation asset management. AFF data transfer standards developed in B.C. have been adopted nationally and internationally.

Another technological marvel developed in B.C. is a complex, computer-based system used for resource tracking and management. Called “Dispatch”, it is an integrated decision support system that incorporates aircraft locations, fire reporting, chronological event logging, resource and personnel tracking, electronic requests for assets, geographic information system data and imagery, fire behaviour, and weather.

B.C. Forest Service firefighter hoses down fire spots.

“The BC Forest Service Dispatch System has evolved over the last 15 years from a seed of an idea,” says Steve Newton, the Aviation Management Superintendent of the B.C. Ministry of Forests and Range, Wildfire Management Branch (WMB). A product of international collaboration, Dispatch is operationally used by several wildfire management and response agencies. “Over the years, the team has involved private and public sector partners spanning such diverse domains as software development companies, aviation companies, remote weather station manufacturers, provincial and state governments, and international space agencies, to name a few. In the operations realm, Dispatch provides a platform for immediate information transfer and sharing in support of all fire response activities. In the broader context of aviation management, the Dispatch system provides an acute situational awareness that informs many levels of decision-making, at both the tactical and strategic operation levels. View access is available internally to all staff in an open and transparent manner, allowing for an increased organizational awareness, which further influences multiple levels of decision making from the field to the senior management tables.”

Jeff Berry, Superintendent of Air Tanker Operations at the WMB says the Dispatch system is viewed as an “enabling technology, in essence a force multiplier, which facilitates moving aircraft where they are needed most resulting in a more cost effective, efficient air tanker program.” He explains that after an initial wildfire report is received at the Provincial Forest Fire Reporting Centre, the information is forwarded to the system for the appropriate fire centre to respond. Crews and equipment are deployed, and the system transmits and receives incident information at regular intervals, and collates the data for reporting and analysis.

Because much of northern Canada is out of range of ground-based radio transmitters and air crews fighting wildfires must fly close to the ground, SATCOM or satellite communication equipment has been installed in firefighting aircraft. Kelowna, B.C.-based Skytrac is a world leader in SATCOM systems for “bird-dogs,” air tankers, and helicopters used for fire suppression and transport of personnel and equipment.  

Ground crews, including initial attack crews transported by helicopter, coordinate their firefighting activities with aerial assets and each other.

Canadian technological creativity and entrepreneurship have been harnessed to not only develop systems used inside firefighting aircraft, but outside as well. The FAST (Fire Attack Storm Tank) Bucket is an innovative and highly-efficient system developed and brought to market by Absolute Fire Solutions (AFS) of Calgary, Alberta. “The basic concept of the FAST Bucket is simple and ingenious,” says Steve Matthews, the company founder and AFS president. “The weight of the water is used to create the hydraulic pressure required to actuate the release of each load. A conventional bucket with a hydraulic-powered water release valve (requiring up to 60 amps of power for actuation) fights against the weight of the water instead of using it for the drop function. No matter how much water is carried – thousands of kilograms, typically – the FAST Bucket requires only 1.8 amps to release the load.”

The FAST Bucket incorporates Cockpit Volume Control, meaning loads can be increased as fuel is consumed, or split for cleanup operations. This results in “substantial productivity increases for agencies as well as a much lower cost-per-gallon of water applied.”

An international effort
During the past quarter century, Canadian wildfire experts have shared their knowledge with government officials, firefighters, pilots and other professionals from many parts of the world. In B.C. alone, the WMB has provided information to wildfire fighting personnel from 30 countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America via tours of its facilities and other activities.

In December 2006, the governments of British Columbia and the State of Victoria in Australia entered into a resource-sharing agreement. This provides for an “exchange of personnel, knowledge, skills, equipment, technologies and mutual support in the event of an emergency.”

Contractor and government aircraft are used to wage an annual "war" on wildfires.

Australia has used B.C. personnel on their wildfires in 2007 and 2009.

In a reciprocal situation, two Incident Man­age­ment Teams from “down under” – consisting of 22 personnel from Australia and 8 from New Zealand – arrived in British Columbia in 2009 to assist with wildfire suppression efforts during an exceptionally busy fire season. The two teams helped out on fires in Lillooet, Prichard and Notch Hill over a 34-day period.”

From July to September 2009, three officers from the Greek Hellenic Fire Brigade participated in a WMB Initial Attack Practical Attachment. The officers spent 58 days as members of Initial Attack crews in hot, dry central and southern B.C., areas similar to those in Greece during the warmest months. “The purpose of the program was to expose the Greek firefighters to the skills, management, and support processes of the B.C. Initial Attack program so that they can determine what aspects … are applicable in Greece and lead in the development of a trial initial attack program when they return,” a WMB press release said.

Scientific studies have concluded that the risk of more wildfires – including in the Arctic for the first time in recorded history – is rising due to global warming. International cooperation on wildfires and resource-sharing will be increasingly crucial in the future.  

Blair Watson, FrontLine’s contributing editor, is based in Kelowna, British Columbia.
© FrontLine Security 2011