Safety & Training
Flying for Forest Fires
By Carroll McCormick
Green airworthiness certification maintenance release tags hang off neat coils of 50-, 75- and 100-foot-long lines, nets and fat blue bags packed with Bambi Buckets.
By Carroll McCormick
Green airworthiness certification maintenance release tags hang off neat coils of 50-, 75- and 100-foot-long lines, nets and fat blue bags packed with Bambi Buckets. Bucksaws, axes and snowshoes are stacked beside beefy yellow straps attached to blue eyehooks. The gear has been tested, checked and packed. Pond training, which takes place every March and April, is underway. It is the beginning of another firefighting season for Saint-Hubert, Que.-based Heli-Inter.
|Heli-Inter’s Saint-Hubert headquarters.
(Photo courtesy of Heli-Inter)
Headquartered across the street from the Montreal/Saint-Hubert Airport, 16 kilometres east of Montreal, Heli-Inter holds several contracts with the province’s firefighting service, the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu.
Referred to in conversation by its acronym SOPFEU, the Quebec City-based government agency monitors the condition of the province’s forests, evaluates the fire danger, flies detection aircraft and organizes and coordinates the strike aircraft and crews that will fight fires. Last year, SOPFEU recorded 762 fires that burned 30,344 hectares.
SOPFEU contracts out to private companies in Quebec for all of the aircraft and pilots it uses; it has neither planes nor pilots of its own.
Contracts for aircraft services typically run for between 250 and 300 hours. However, SOPFEU does have variable-term contracts of between three and six months duration.
For water bombing SOPFEU uses Bombardier Canadair CL-215, CL-215T and CL-415 fixed-wing aircraft. Cessna 310 and King Air A-100 aircraft take care of birddogging duties and Cessna 182 RG and Cessna 337 planes fly aerial patrols.
Helicopter companies provide various types SOPFEU has used as many as 20 helicopters at a time to fight a large fire.
Heli-Inter uses several intermediate aircraft for firefighting: the AStar 350 B2, BA+ and B3. In addition, it uses the Bell 205 A1-17 medium helicopter and two light helicopter types: the AStar 350 BA and the Bell 206 LR.
“SOPFEU decides which choppers it wants, and requests them. It depends on the need for the convenience of cargo pods, the power of the aircraft and the interior layout,” says Roxanne Allard, operations manager and co-owner of Heli-Inter Inc./Héli-Nation. “We do not operate belly tanks though. They are not necessary in Quebec, as there are lots of lakes,” Allard adds.
Heli-Inter is one of several divisions of Placement B. Allard Inc., a family-owned company headquartered in Chicoutimi, Que. Its other divisions are Heli-Excel, based in Sept-Isle, Que. and Goose Bay, Labrador; Exact Air, based in St-Honoré, Que.; Mustang Helicopters, based in Red Deer, Alta. and Smithers, B.C.; and the iService Centre, which is co-located with Heli-Inter in Saint-Hubert.
Heli-Inter has 28 helicopters and about 90 employees, including 40 pilots, 30 mechanics and administration. Heli-Inter moved its headquarters from Val D’Or to Saint-Hubert when the group decided to merge Heli-Inter and Heli-Craft in 2009.
Among other improvements to the facility since moving there, it added 14,000 square feet of building space in 2012. Spacious and spotless helicopter bays open onto a 40,000-square-foot turbine apron on the east side and onto a 16,000-square-foot piston apron on the west side.
The company’s many activities include operating a flight school, power line inspections and a lot of flying for commercials and film production. It operates an FBO and rents out hangar space with room for between eight and a dozen helicopters.
| Firefighters put out a small blaze. (Photo courtesy of Heli-Inter)
Last year, Heli-Inter logged 1,250 hours for firefighting – a medium season, Allard says. “We earned about $2.2 million in firefighting revenue last year.”
SOPFEU requires that helicopter pilots flying for it have a minimum of 500 hours flying time. Pilots must take a computer-based ground school training course from SOPFU before getting on its approved pilot list. Otherwise, Heli-Inter does all of its own pilot training.
“All of our pilots are long-line pilots. They are all trained for bucket work. We have annual training for long-line and Bambi Bucket training. We do bucket training on our artificial pond in St-Hubert and in Malartic,” Allard explains.
Malartic is a 12,000-square-foot sub-base Heli-Inter owns just west of Val-d’Or, with about 25 full-time employees. Malartic is strategically close to the Ontario border and is at almost the same latitude as Kirkland Lake, about 140 kilometres to the west. Heli-Inter logs more firefighting hours in Quebec and Ontario than elsewhere in Canada.
True to its name, Coast to Coast Helicopters, the Red Deer, Alta.-based leasing division of Placement B. Allard, fights forest fires from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. This year, it began firefighting work in Newfoundland, bringing to seven the provinces in which it carries out firefighting duties. The exceptions are New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. “The power of Coast to Coast is that we share with our sister companies,” Allard says.
Flying for SOPFEU is an earned responsibility. “SOPFEU audits and qualifies companies to work for them. It checks pilot files, manuals, operational procedures and maintenance. You have to be pre-qualified by SOPFEU to work for them,” Allard says.
Helicopter companies can have two types of contracts with SOPFEU, Allard explains.
“There are long-term, bidded contracts for SOPFEU that last the whole season. There are nine of these contracts for nine choppers for the whole province. We have five of them. We have to be ready with crew, mechanics and pilots with as little as five minutes’ notice. The amount of notice required depends on the forest fire index.
“Otherwise there are short-term contracts for a pool of pre-qualified aircraft. If I don’t have one available, SOPFEU will go to the next company on the list.” SOPFEU uses the helicopters to transport firefighters, cargo and equipment, and do firefighting.
The firefighting season runs from about April to early September. Last year, for example, after just 13 fires in March that burned five hectares, the action heated up to 113 fires that torched 83 hectares in April. Then things went crazy in May, with 174 fires that burned over 26,726 hectares. The October action cooled off to just seven fires and four hectares.
The granddaddy of fire months in recent memory, though, was May 2010. Allard refers to it as the Chibougamau fire, but in that kindling-dry month, lightning started 86 fires that raged across 173,638 hectares.
The air in Montreal was thick with smoke that wafted more than 700 kilometres south, and smoke was even reported in the New England states.
SOPFEU has several official bases for firefighters and aircraft, including the long-term contract helicopters: e.g., Val d’Or, Maniwaki, Metagamie, Roberval, Quebec City and Baie-Comeau.
“We base in these places, but we operate out of sub-bases elsewhere, such as hunting camps,” Allard says. “SOPFEU takes care of just about everything. Most of the time, fuel, board and lodging are managed by SOPFEU. We do not take care of the fuel. We only rent a service: pilots, aircraft and mechanics.”
Allard explains that firefighting places few special maintenance demands on her helicopters.
“In hot weather the FDC inlet filters have to be cleaned very often. There are a lot of needles flying in the air and they get packed in the filters. The pilots check them often during the course of the day. We also do a lot of painting on the blades. There is erosion caused by beach sand and other particles kicked up on landing areas. Other than that it is standard field maintenance.”
Last year, SOPFEU called on Heli-Inter some 25 times. “Sometimes SOPFEU will have 15 to 20 aircraft working a fire, and five or six might be from Heli-Inter. This is co-ordinated by aircraft flying at 5,000 feet. When the big tankers come we have to go away.”
As for the length of those field trips, Allard looks skyward and says, “Last year our crews and equipment were in the field for periods ranging from two days to three weeks. We don’t know when our aircraft will come home. They come home when SOPFEU releases them.”