Helicopters Magazine

Features Commercial Utility/Other
In the Line of Fire

May 3, 2011  By Paul Dixon

Every year on average, 8,500 wildfires are reported across Canada, burning an area of 2.5 million hectares. Wildfires destroy property, cause economic hardship and generally disrupt lives. As human habitation creeps further into the wildland interface, the potential for costly and deadly wildfires increases.

Initial attack teams in B.C. are critical for keeping fires at bay. Here, an Erickson Air-Crane drops a retardant on a developing blaze.
(Photo courtesy of Erickson Air-Crane)


Every year on average, 8,500 wildfires are reported across Canada,
burning an area of 2.5 million hectares. Wildfires destroy property,
cause economic hardship and generally disrupt lives. As human habitation
creeps further into the wildland interface, the potential for costly
and deadly wildfires increases. Millions of hectares of forest ravaged
by insects and blight, coupled with extended periods of drought, sets
the stage for wildfires of epic proportion.

Canada has a sophisticated management system to manage wildland
firefighting response from the smallest isolated communities to
international response. At the bottom rung, firefighting response within
organized territory is the responsibility of the local authority;
towns, cities, regional districts. If the situation is beyond their
capabilities and/or resources they may turn to neighbouring communities,
by way of mutual-aid agreements, or to their provincial authority. When
the province’s resources are overwhelmed, the Canadian Interagency
Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) steps into the picture.

Located in Winnipeg, CIFFC co-ordinates services for all the provinces, territories and federal fire management agencies, and co-ordinates sharing of resources with the United States and other countries. Funding for CIFFC is a federal-provincial joint venture, with the federal government contributing one-third and the provinces making up the remainder based on their inventory of productive forestland. British Columbia pays 17 per cent of that two-thirds, while Prince Edward Island pays only 0.1 per cent.


In B.C., 2003 was a watershed year for wildland firefighting in B.C., one of the most catastrophic in the province’s history. Due to an extended drought in the southern half of the province, forest firefighters faced conditions never seen before in Canada. Lightning strikes, human carelessness and arson all contributed to igniting nearly 2,500 fires, ultimately involving more than 10,000 firefighters and support personnel, and burning more than 265,000 hectares. The extreme volatility of the dry forests, compounded by the province’s difficult terrain, created unprecedented fire behaviour and at times made fire suppression almost impossible. More than 300 residences and businesses were destroyed and more than 40,000 people were evacuated from their communities at the peak of the fire season.

In response to widespread public protests about the 2003 firefighting efforts, the B.C. government appointed Gary Filmon, former premier of the province of Manitoba, to head a commission of inquiry on wildland firefighting in the province. The Filmon Commission heard hundreds of submissions and produced a report that identified a number of critical shortcomings, and established future priorities.

Community based firefighting strategies are standard in B.C., with a plethora of rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft employed to battle blazes. Here, an Erickson Air Crane battles a fire in Lillooet.
(Photo courtesy of Erickson Air-Crane)


Brian Simpson, director of B.C.’s Wildfire Management Branch, describes
the major shift in firefighting philosophy that came from the Filmon
Report. “Prior to 2005, wildland firefighting in B.C. was simply a
response. Now, we have shifted our focus from protecting forest values
to protecting communities through fuel management programs and community
wildfire plans. Fire management around communities is critical.” The
shift from suppression to prevention follows the model adopted by the
U.S. Forest Service.

Despite the fact that the USFS had reached a 99 per cent initial attack success rate, higher than the 95 per cent target for most Canadian provinces, it had been incurring record-setting costs, losses, and damages in fire areas where severe, catastrophic fire should have been rare. The USFS realized that devastating fires were continuing to occur because the service had been attempting to manage the landscape to protect everything from commercial interests to human settlements, and by doing so had in fact created an environment conducive to superfires.

The Province of British Columbia created a fuel mangement program that provides matching funding to communities to reduce fuel build up in interface areas in order to reduce the potential for extreme fires. In April 2011 the B.C. government announced a further $25 million would be committed over the next two years to allow the program to continue.

All About the Team
British Columbia employs 1,100 Class 1 firefighters and 30 Initial Attack (IA) firefighters operating from 50 bases across the province. Three-person IA teams can be deployed by helicopter or vehicle.  Salmon Arm is home to the province’s 36-member Rap attack team that rappels from helicopters to access fires in the heavily-treed, steep mountain terrain, while Fort St. John in northern B.C. is home to the North Peace Smokejumpers, who operate out of fixed-wing aircraft.

A strong initial attack strategy utilizing a variety of rotary assets is crucial to B.C.’s firefighting process.
(Photo courtesy of SEI Industries)


Twenty-person unit crews stationed across the province round out the front-line complement of seasonal firefighters. As circumstances dictate, IA teams can combine to form a unit crew or unit crews can be broken down into smaller teams. Flexibility is the key to effectiveness, says Tom Reinboldt, supervisor of the smokejumpers. “Specialization is for insects – the more flexible you are, the more valuable you are,” he says.

Extensive water bucket drops are critical to the success of B.C.’s firefighting efforts.
(Photo courtesy of iStock)


The decision to deploy crews on any fire is made at one of six Regional Fire Centres located around the province by the Regional Wildfire Control Officer using the criteria of closest and/or most effective resource available to respond. Considerations for most effective use of a resource, or combination of resources, required to respond include the size of the fire and burning conditions; any access issues (i.e., can you drive to it or is the fire remote?), dispatch distance; what is threatened (i.e., homes and infrastructure, high-value timber, etc.); and what is the current and predicted fire load within that Fire Centre’s region.

Rotary Support Services
Initial Attack teams across the province are delivered by medium helicopters, which utilize hover exit techniques where aircraft are unable to land. Where trees or topography make landing impossible, Rap attack crews can rappel down from as high as 80 metres through openings in the tree canopies. Depending on the fire, the team may move directly to fight the fire if it is small, or in the case of a larger fire, clear a landing zone to enable other firefighters to be brought in quickly. At the same time, the IA crew is dispatched to the fire, air tankers and/or helicopters may be dispatched, depending on resource availability. Ideally, the team will have the support of one or more tankers for retardant drops and helicopters for water drops by bucket or belly tanks. Swift response by B.C.’s initial attack crews across the province keeps the province close to its goal of keeping 95 per cent of all wildfires within four hectares.

  Coulson S-76B Firewatch

Coulson Air Tankers of Port Alberni, B.C., operates its S-76B as a flying data and communications centre. Equipped with forward-looking infrared (FLIR), an Aerocomputer mapping system, twin Sony high-definition DVRs and monitors, satellite phones and Internet/e-mail service, it can record and send fire data anywhere in real-time. Firewatch has been used as a birddog in conjunction with Coulson’s Martin Mars water-bomber, and uses its onboard equipment to create a video record of drops and provide a real-time data link to fire bosses on the ground to determine the accuracy of each drop.

In 2010, during the Australian fire season, the Firewatch was employed in Australia to measure the effectiveness of a number of aerial assets, including trials with Tanker 10’s converted DC-10. During the Canadian summer fire season, Firewatch was under contract to the Province of B.C., operating in the interior of the province, and providing real-time information and mapping with its electronics suite.

Success in firefighting is based on an integrated approach: firefighters on the ground supported by air tankers and helicopters. It takes integration of all three and each understanding the role of the others to work together as a team. Retardant dropped by tankers can establish a perimeter defence, while helicopters fill in the holes in the line and attack hot spots with buckets or belly tanks.

Jeff Berry, B.C.’s manager of aviation services, says the idea is to send out enough resources to knock the fire down without having to reload. If the weather co-operates, the fire can be contained in place or driven against a defensive line where it will burn itself out as the crews on the ground eliminate the last hot spots.

Help When It’s Needed

Unlike other provinces such as Alberta and Ontario, B.C. owns none of its own aircraft – part of the provincial government’s commitment to private-public partnerships. All aircraft are contracted, with a core group hired on a seasonal basis and others on an as-needed basis. At the peak of the 2009 fire season, there were 251 helicopters actively engaged in firefighting activities (57,000 hours flown), as well as 42 aerial tankers and water bombers. Rotary-wing resources are tracked and controlled from dispatch centers in each of the six Regional Fire Centers around the province, while fixed-wing air tankers are controlled by the Provincial Air tanker Center in Kamloops. All dispatch centres use modern CAD systems and are cross-linked in real time, allowing real-time sharing of data. In the event that one centre is offline, other centres can takeover operational responsibility.

For large fires, moving fuel and other resources as close to the operations zone as possible maximizes flying time over the fire, by reducing the need to fly to find fuel. Steve Newton, superintendent of aviation management for the B.C. Wildfire Branch, puts it very simply: “The closer you move the fuel to the fire, the more water you’ll get on the fire.” 

The concept of Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3 designations for wild land firefighters is a national standard that allows rapid deployment of ground firefighters across the country through the auspices of CIFFC. The day is long gone when volunteers would be taken off the street and thrown into the firestorm. National standards for aircraft and pilots as well, allow for seamless integration of out-of-province resources into critical situations. The work of the Helicopter Association of Canada’s Pilot Qualifications Working Group has identified the competencies required of pilots engaged in wildfire operations rather than simply relying on an arbitrary number of hours as a measure of a pilot’s capabilities. Eight specific areas of expertise were identified, resulting in the creation of the Pilot Competencies for Helicopter Wildfire Operations – Best Practices Training and Evaluation, a joint HAC/CIFFC document. For 2011, the forest agencies of B.C., Alberta, Yukon, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories and Manitoba have all confirmed that they will be using these criteria.

Burning Bright

Canadians have always been at the forefront of aerial firefighting. Sixty years ago, the first generation of commercial helicopters gave a hint of what would be possible when technology caught up to imagination. As machines grew larger, more powerful and gained reliability, the potential could be realized. Techniques and equipment were developed through trial and error. Many credit Jim Grady of Okanagan Helicopters with creating the first helicopter water bucket when he and Henry Stevenson fitted a trap door to the bottom of a 45-gallon steel drum with a switch that allowed the helicopter pilot to control the “Monsoon Bucket.” Fifty years on, the bucket is ubiquitous in aerial firefighting, with Delta, B.C.’s SEI Industries supplying more than 90 per cent of the world’s market with their giant pumpkin Bambi Buckets.

Over the past 40 years, aerial firefighting, especially with helicopters, has grown from an ad hoc response to a sophisticated high-value industry in its own right. The ability of helicopters to deliver personnel, equipment and suppresion across wide regions under extreme conditions makes them a cost-effective tool at a time when all eyes are on the bottom line. As climates around the world continue to create conditions that lead to more and bigger fires every year, the role of the helicopter in wildland firefighting will continue to evolve.

Bambi Versus Godzilla
Bambi Buckets appeared in the skies over Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in late March as Japanese military pilots struggled in a desperate attempt to maintain water levels in the damaged reactors at the site, bringing the media to Bambi’s home: SEI Industries of Delta, B.C. Without proper training or equipment, the water being dropped by Japanese military pilots appeared to be ineffective. Global TV, CTV and Discovery Channel gave extensive coverage to the story, with Discovery filming a segment for Daily Planet at Abbotsford Airport with Shawn Bethel, division manager of SEI’s firefighting division and Ralph Wagner of Sequoia Helicopters. Bethel explained that because the untrained pilots used only 25-foot lines, (instead of the more usual 150 to 200-foot lines used by trained fire pilots), they flew too fast and released their load from too great a height, the water was no more than a fine mist by the time it reached its target. A demonstration followed with several passes by Sequoia. On the first pass, replicating the Japanese practice of too high and too fast, the water was widely dispersed and barely covered the bottom of a child’s plastic swimming pool that had been set out as a target. On the final pass, flying low and almost stationary at release, the pool was filled to almost overflowing. Bull’s-eye. SEI offered to supply long lines and an experienced trainer to teach the Japanese pilots, but the offer became moot when emergency power to the site was established and the plant emergency pumps came back on line.


Stories continue below

Print this page