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A fiery relationship – aerial firefighting in Canada

January 2, 2018  By Paul Dixon

Events of the last couple of years – Fort McMurray in 2016 and British Columbia’s 2017 season of disaster – are a hint from Mother Nature that we need to rethink our relationship with forests, especially the part about what happens when things catch on fire.

We love our forests and they have been an economic powerhouse for communities across the country.  We love our forests so much that we live close to them, or increasingly right in the forests as towns and cities expand into what we call the interface. We love our forests so much that we build our homes from wood products.

Wildfire is nothing new to Canada, as fires were burning unchecked long before the first humans appeared on the scene. As much as the First Nations may have feared uncontrolled wildfires, they also realized there was a beneficial side to them. In the mid-1800s, as the first Europeans explored the vast, open prairie, they failed to realize that the vast landscape of grasslands and forests they encountered existed as the product of wildfire. To the Europeans, fire was bad; a threat to the settlements and infrastructure forming the keystone of the “civilization” they felt they were introducing.

Canada has been at the forefront of aerial firefighting from the very beginning and helicopters have been involved in every facet of firefighting in one way or another from the moment they were first introduced.Jim Grady of Okanagan Helicopters and Henry Stevenson have been recognized as the creators of the first water bucket. Twenty years after their Monsoon Bucket was introduced in 1962, Don Arney was inspired to repurpose some underwater airbags he was testing and thus the Bambi Bucket was born. Today, SEI, the company that Arney founded, has 95 per cent of the helicopter water bucket business. Specialized programs in B.C., such as Rappatack and Initial Attack, see helicopters transport initial attack crews into remote areas not easily accessed overland, where crews are either landed or rappel down in areas where landing is impossible. The helicopter is then able to support the ground crews by delivering water either by bucket or belly tank in a coordinated, multi-prong attack.  For many years, the philosophy was to get on the fire as quickly as possible with a goal of extinguishing it within 24 hours.

There have been significant changes in fires in recent years. The Fort McMurray fire of 2016 was followed by monster fires in July and August in B.C., which in turn set the stage for a raging monster in September that swept out of southeastern BC and through Waterton Park in Alberta. As as our world changes around us, the question is this: are these fires anomalies or are they the new normal?  Firefighting is a sexy business, no two ways about it. It’s hard, dirty work for everyone who’s involved out there and they’re worth every cent. But we need to so some serious thinking about what the future looks like, both in terms of what Mother Nature has in store for us and how we are going to react. If we continue to see the warming and drying trends of recent years, coupled with the strong winds that propelled these monster fires, then we need to reassess the what and when of how we address wildfire.


One operator I spoke to recently offered the opinion that these fires are too big to fight once they reach a critical mass. It’s not a matter of trying to beat them head-on, but rather trying to deflect them or nibble at the edges. Other operators see a change from the all-in mentality of only a few years ago, with officials taking a more wait-and-see approach to new fires. The concern here is that if the fire does develop it is already to big to attack head-on. There’s no question that the people wearing the red shirts are doing their jobs and doing them well, but the policy decisions come from the political masters and these are the people who have some tough decisions to make.  

The first decision government has to make is to support their wildland firefighting program with a more robust budget. As of the end of November, the bill for the 2017 fire season in B.C. was rapidly approaching $600 million, against a budget of $63 million. One of the benefits of a more robust budget might be more contracted helicopters. The province of B.C. has six helicopters on long-term contract, which leaves everyone else either sitting by the phone or taking their aircraft where the work is in other parts of the world. It’s nice that B.C. helicopters are in such demand around the world, but it might be nice to put some of them to work where they live, so to speak.  

The world is changing around us and we have to change with it. It is so important that we get out in front of these changes instead of trying to play catch up.

Paul Dixon is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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