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Minding the Fires

April 29, 2014  By Carroll McCormick

The pilots have completed their annual ground school and emergency procedures practice.

The pilots have completed their annual ground school and emergency procedures practice. Bucket training has been ongoing since the ice melted off the lakes. The engineers have been poring over the helicopters and the firefighting equipment has been checked and repaired. It is wildfire season again in Nova Scotia.

attach Bambi Bucket  
The Bell 212 is the fleet’s big gun, held back for bigger blazes and high winds. (Photos courtesy of DNR)


The province bought its first helicopter, a Bell 47, in 1974. Since then it has bought and sold several more machines before settling on its current mix of one Bell 212, manufactured in 1980, three MD 500Es, manufactured in 1989, 1990 and 2002 and one EC120B, vintage 2005.

“From its conception in the mid-1940s, the fleet was fixed wing. From 1974 forward it became a mixed fleet of fixed- and rotary-wing until 2000, when the last fixed wing was removed from the fleet,” explains Ross Wickwire, who oversees the Air Services section of the province’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “The high number of small, rocky lakes are not very suitable for float planes and large tankers. The helicopters can pick up water from very small sources of water, providing very short turnaround times from water source to fire.”


Wickwire joined the DNR as a fixed-wing pilot in 1981. In 1984, he completed conversion training to helicopters at Trans Maritime Helicopter in Fredericton, N.B. His long tenure straddles the gradual shift from a fixed-wing to an exclusively rotary-wing firefighting fleet. Data from the government’s Wildfire Management Division has supported the need for five helicopters, a number that the government has maintained for more than 35 years.

Home base for the fleet and seven pilots, including Wickwire, is a 669 square-metre building in Shubenacadie, a few kilometres north of the Halifax International Airport. Four aircraft maintenance engineers working in its 539 square-metre hangar take care of everything except scheduled overhauls, which are outsourced through government tender.

If things get too hot, the Provincial Wildfire Coordination Centre, just next door to the air fleet’s hangar, can request assistance through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre or the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact; responding aircraft have flown in from New Brunswick, Quebec, Newfoundland and even Maine.

Mutual aid for the Porter’s Lake fire of 2008, for example, came in from Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. That fire, near Halifax, burned 1,950 hectares. “We had quite a variety of aircraft on that fire,” Wickwire says.

Firefighter LWagg  
The helicopter’s versatility makes it the province’s firefighting aircraft of choice.
(Photo courtesy of DNR)


Nova Scotia has an annual average of 350 fires, burning 800 hectares, but the year-over-year numbers are about as stable as the maritime weather. Last year, for example, there were only 171 fires and 302 hectares burned. The worst scorching in recent memory was the Trafalgar fire of 1976. Located in eastern Nova Scotia, due south of New Glasgow, it cooked 12,950 hectares. One source cites “relentless aerial attack” by William Burtt, flying a Dominion Pegasus Helicopters’ Bell 206 JetRanger out of Cape Breton. “In its time, Trafalgar was huge. We had some huge fires in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Trafalgar really kick-started new initiatives in the department and the purchase of the first medium helicopter, the Bell 212. There’s been nothing as large as Trafalgar since 1976, but there have been serious fires,” says Walter Fanning, director of Forest Protection.

All five helicopters work in fire suppression. “The four light helicopters tend to be dispatched first to the fire scene. The Bell 212 is held back for big fires and high winds. It is used sparingly for other things during times of high hazard. Its primary role during the fire season is firefighting,” Wickwire says.

The helicopter pilots battle blazes strictly with Bambi Buckets: a 100-gallon Bucket for the MD 500s and the EC120B and a 250 gallon Bucket for the Bell 212. They carry standard gear such as slings, cargo nets, long lines and survival equipment. The fleet has one cargo pod, for an MD 500. DNR does not rappel fire crews, but pilots will ferry fire crews and their equipment closer to the heat.

DNR requires that candidate pilots have at least 2,500 hours total time, with 1,500 of those in turbine helicopters and a minimum of 2,000 hours as helicopter pilot in command. Candidates should have endorsement for at least two of the fleet types, with current pilot
proficiency checks. A long list of other requirements make it pretty certain that qualified pilots will be coming from large companies that do a lot of long line and bucket work.

“When we advertise for pilots we get 25 to 30 applicants, of which four or five might be suitable, in our eyes. We spend a lot of time very close to the ground; for example, doing surveys. You get into a fire situation with low visibility and other helicopters and the situation can get interesting,” Wickwire says.

Openings are rare, but there have been some since 2008. “We get a lot of very young pilots wanting to get into the business,” Wickwire says. “We do have a seasonal position for a pilot who is fresh out of flight school within the 150- to 200-hour range, in a co-pilot position in the Bell 212. If the seasonal pilot elects to come back in the second year, they are required to attend the annual training and flight school. Eventually, they will go out into industry for a permanent pilot position. We have pilots on staff who took that route and came back to permanent positions within DNR.”

A school program lets local high school students interested in aircraft maintenance come out to Shubenackadie for one day a week for 10 to 15 weeks. They work with the engineers in order to get a feel for the aircraft maintenance engineer position.

Each of the province’s 18 counties has two DNR district offices, give or take. Most have landing pads and fuel to bring out to fire sites. There are also two forward bases. One is in the west, at McGowan Lake, midway between Annapolis Royal and Liverpool. The eastern base is in Margaree, in Cape Breton. They have bedrooms and kitchen facilities and there is usually a vehicle available.

That DNR can dispatch helicopters around the province ties in closely with several other factors to explain how most fires are put out quickly and, generally, with few hectares burned. The province is not terribly large and it has an extensive network of woods roads. DNR works closely with the province’s 325 volunteer fire departments, which respond extremely rapidly. “We have a long-standing agreement with them. They roll out fast and provide additional resources on our fires. Together, we have a quick response rate, usually less than 20 minutes, to get at the site,” Fanning says.

first responders  
The MD 500s and Eurocopter EC120B are the first responders. 


The province once had 34 fire towers, some of which dated back to the 1940s, but their function is gradually being supplanted by other technologies, Fanning says. “For a long time they were a huge factor in our early detection of fires, but over the years we found that they were no longer the largest reporting group. About 10 years ago they were reporting about 30 per cent of the fires first, while in the last few years they are first to report only 7 to 11 per cent of the fires. Now the
public reports the majority of our fires. Our data show that almost all of our fires, about 96 per cent, are started within 1.3 kilometres
of houses.”

The advent of 911 and cell phones mean that the people who have fires that get away from them are calling them in. “Unlike the rest of Canada, 99 per cent of our fires are caused by people. If we get a dozen lightning fires a year, that’s high,” Fanning notes.

The province has been using fixed-wing aircraft for about 15 years to supplement towers on extreme fire hazard days. In a review and test project three years ago, the department found that using fixed-wing aircraft to patrol the province is more cost effective than maintaining and manning the iconic towers.

The aircraft can fly right over fires, report on the fuel they have to burn and lead ground crews to fires. “I was able to guide a ground crew that couldn’t figure out how to get to the fire on the woods roads,” says Brian Goldie, owner, Centre Valley Aircraft Inc., in Waterville. His company is in the third of a three-year contract with DNR to fly surveillance patrols using Cessna 172s.

Patrols are assigned according to the forest fire weather index and other factors. The Provincial Wildfire Coordination Centre, which monitors the province and allocates resources, has developed coded, prescribed routes for the planes to fly. Flights may last from two-and-a-half to six hours. Pilots sometimes fly alone, and sometimes with trained spotters, putting along at 2,200 rpm at 1,000 feet above ground level. Depending on the fire threat level, as many as three 172s at a time may be flying patrols anywhere between the extreme west of the province and the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

The helicopter fleet averages 1,100 to 1,200 flight hours a year. With a normal to dry fire weather season, the flight hours devoted to the fire side of things might be 30 to 40 per cent of the total hours logged. The frosting on the cake, both for the province and the pilots, is the diversity of assignments the helicopters carry out during the other 60 to 70 per cent of the time.

Wickwire explains: “Air Services provides air support to all Nova Scotia government departments and agencies. Activities include wildfire fighting, fire detecting, provincial emergency situations, biodiversity studies, wildlife surveys, wildlife tracking, Crown land management, inland search and rescue and supporting Nova Scotia’s volunteer search and rescue teams.

“Over the years, we have found helicopters to be very versatile. We are fortunate that we have a lot of varied and interesting jobs that we do.”


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