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Wildfires, unplanned and unwanted natural or human-caused fires, are a fact of life in Canada.


May 8, 2012
By Paul Dixon

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Wildfires, unplanned and unwanted natural or human-caused fires, are a fact of life in Canada. With more than 400 million hectares, or about 10 per cent of the earth’s forests, Canada averages some 8,600 fires annually and has for the past 40 years. While only three per cent of these fires grow to more than 200 hectares, the fires that do account for 97 per cent of the area burned across the country. While the total area burned varies greatly from one year to the next, the 30-year average is 2.6 million hectares annually, from a low of 0.3 million hectares in 1978 to a high of 7.5 million hectares in 1989.

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The MNR enacts a quick strike approach to forest fire suppression, transporting small crews on site quickly and efficiently.
(Photo by Matt Nicholls)


 

Directly and indirectly, forestry-related industries employee hundreds of thousands of Canadians and provide tens of billions of dollars to the national economy. Once dominated by pulp mills supplying the world’s newspapers and sawmills producing dimension lumber, Canada’s forest industries are reinventing themselves to meet the needs of a changing world economy.

In Canada, responsibility for forest and fire management rests with each of the 13 provinces and territories, while the federal government is responsible for fire management in the national parks. Annual fire suppression costs are rising constantly in Canada currently average about $500 million and have risen to more than $1 billion dollars in recent years. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec generally account for about 80 per cent of total annual expenditures in Canada. Coupled with climate change and the threat of worsening fire seasons is a political and economic climate that places increasing stress on the people and organizations responsible for fire management.

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Developing healthy and productive forest ecosystems to supply the changing economy is a key strategy going forward.
(Photo courtesy of Ascent Helicopters)


Over the past century, Canada has developed some of the most sophisticated forest management and fire management systems in the world to minimize the occurrence of wildfire and contain it when it does occur. In the early days, the intent of firefighters was to put out all fires as quickly as possible with a philosophy of, “all fire is bad fire.” In the 1970s, a realization developed that fire had an essential role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, which led to the development of management systems that took a number of factors into consideration for fighting wildfires, including the ecology, the cost of suppression and prioritizing values and risk.

The Canadian model of operations has not been built in isolation from the rest of the world, but rather based on the experience of others and often in collaboration with agencies in other countries. As we have learned in the past, there are valuable lessons to be learned from what is happening today in other countries, environmentally, economically and politically.

In 2005, the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers released the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy, addressing critical issues identified in the wake of the disastrous 2003 fire season, which saw hundreds of homes destroyed and tens of thousands of people evacuated in Western Canada. In 2010, an update to the original report cited information from fire seasons in every region of the country that had reached epic proportions in the preceding five years. Case in point, in 2006, the four western provinces simultaneously experienced severe fire activity while Ontario experienced its longest fire season, the result being a shortage of resources in all regions due to the inability to draw on external forces and equipment. 

The Central Westcoast Forest Society (CWFS) states unequivocally, “Climate change will have significant impacts on Canada’s forests. The Canadian Forest Service has used General Circulation Model projections for the 21st century in its forest fire models to estimate that by 2040, Canada will be experiencing significantly increased fire occurrence and fire spread potential, based on climate change impacts on temperature and precipitation patterns. In 2006, Ontario used these estimates within its level of protection analysis system to gauge the impacts of this increased fire activity on Ontario’s suppression capabilities and success in containing wildfires. It was predicted that in order for Ontario to maintain its current level of fire response success in this projected more severe fire regime, it would need to double its fire suppression resources.”

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The strength of the Canadian wildland firefighting system is the ability to move resources from one part of the country to another in an efficient and controlled manner through one chain of command. (Photo courtesy of Alpine Helicopters)


Dr. John Pomeroy, head of the University of Saskatchewan’s hydrology department, stated in a recently released report that it will only take a four-degree change in temperature to cause dramatic changes to the snow levels across much of Canada’s prairies and mountains. He is one of a group of Canadian scientists who state bluntly that our winter season has been diminishing steadily over the past several decades as evidenced by the fact that the ice cover on our lakes and rivers has shortened by two weeks over that time.

In 2012, the government of Alberta declared fire season open a month early on March 1, after a mild, dry winter. Grass fires had already burned across large areas of Alberta in January and February, driven by winds strong enough to blow transport trucks off highways. Seasonal crews were called in early in every province, with training and equipment inspection moved up by a month in some locales.

Burning Concerns
As the model for wildfire management evolved in the 1980s, it followed three main streams:

  • Build resilient communities and educate the public;
  • Develop healthy and productive forest ecosystems to supply a changing economy;
  • Adopt modern business practices and emerging technology.

As towns and cities expanded, the model morphed into what is known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). Property owners and local governments prior to the development of this strategy have failed to foresee the dangers of building in interface areas without taking steps to build resilient structures and undertake fuel management programs.

Most provinces now have a FireSmart program, which seeks to raise the level of awareness of communities and residents, enabling them to raise their level of preparedness and thereby reducing the level of exposure to wildfire. Provincial FireSmart programs direct communities to take the lead by proactively removing potential fuels such as dry grass, dead leaves and tree needles, brush and small trees from community lands, and educating members of their communities to take the same responsibility for private property.

In British Columbia, a number of recommendations made by the Filmon Commission of Inquiry into the 2003 Firestorm were incorporated into the FireSmart program, but given the current economic climate, it will take more than 100 years to fully implement the program at the current level of funding.

The View From the South
Looking south to the United States, we can see where increasingly extreme fire conditions are stretching shrinking budgets. Thousands of homes have been lost in interface fires in recent years and scores of people have died. Municipalities and state governments are facing critical budget shortfalls, and the money is simply not there to protect areas in need. In 2011, the state of California cut its wildfire protection budget by $34 million. CALFIRE, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, operates the world’s largest dedicated fleet of firefighting aircraft: 11 UH-1H SuperHuey helicopters, 23 Grumman S-2T tankers and 14 spotter aircraft. The UH-1H helicopters have been in service with CALFIRE for more than 20 years after being obtained from the U.S. Air Force as surplus. The aircraft have reached the end of their projected service life, but there is no budget for replacements. Maintenance hours are increasing and replacement parts must increasingly be fabricated in-house.

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Over the past century, Canada has developed some of the most sophisticated forest management and fire management systems in the world – including rotary assets from operators nationwide.  (Photo courtesy of Alpine Helicopters)


CALFIRE is able to call on a limited number of state Air National Guard Blackhawk helicopters during the fire season. In the U.S., National Guard units are under the direction of the state governor’s office, and for 30 years in California, a limited number of National Guard helicopters have been integrated into the state firefighting model. After facing extreme criticism from politicians and the public for a perceived failure to utilize U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps helicopters during the catastrophic 2009 fire season, these assets have now been integrated into the response model, with CH-53 and Blackhawk helicopters equipped with Bambi Buckets available on a last-called, first-released basis.

All the military helicopters – National Guard, Navy and Marine Corps – have a limited usefulness as they are limited to bucketing operations. A decision was made years ago, amid concerns about slung loads, to restrict helicopter firefighting operations in urban areas to belly tanks. CALFIRE officials were not aware that Navy and Marine corps helicopters were equipped with Bambi Buckets and their pilots were trained in their use as standard practice. For the past two years, U.S. military helicopter crews have been attending the CALFIRE spring training camps to familiarize themselves with operational requirements and better integrate themselves. Air Division Battalion Chief Ray Cheney says the focus is on integrated training and the “all hazards” approach to disaster planning and training, not just focusing on firefighting. 

While the Canadian military has provided assistance to civilian authorities in a number of major events in recent years such as 2003’s firestorm in B.C. and Hurricane Juan in Nova Scotia, major floods and winter storms, there are no plans to provide helicopters to perform aerial firefighting duties. In response to a direct question for this article, a spokesman for Royal Canadian Air Force headquarters who asked not to be named, said: “Our helicopters are only used in a utility role for firefighting support and not employed in an aerial firefighting capacity. Examples are moving personnel and equipment, and searching for possible fire locations. The RCAF has no plans to provide an aerial firefighting capability as it is already provided by the civilian industry. We only provide utility support when a government agency specifically requests aid.”

An Overlying Strategy
One of the mandates of the CWFS was that a national wildfire strategy for Canada should be patterned after the model in place for emergency management and disaster response. The creation of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) in 1982 was a direct result. The function of CIFFC is similar to the role of the federal government in the wake of a major disaster. Emergency planning in this country is based on the “all hazards” approach where incidents are gauged as much for their disruptive potential and the need to provide the same basic services to individuals and communities. No matter what the hazard, emergency planners view the event the same way whether it is a wildfire at the height of summer or extreme winter weather. Residents are each initially responsible for themselves and their own immediate families. When they encounter a situation beyond their capabilities, they rely on local, community-based resources. When the situation is beyond the scope of the local authority, they turn either to neighbouring communities under pre-existing mutual-aid agreements or to the province. When the province runs out of resources, they turn to the federal government and in the most extreme situations, it may elevate to an international incident.

The strength of the Canadian wildland firefighting system is its ability to move resources from one part of the country to the other in an efficient and controlled manner through one chain of command, with CIFFC as the expediter. Most provinces in Canada own a small number of aircraft, relying on commercial operators, some on seasonal contracts and a larger number on a call-when-needed basis. Bob Crowell, operations manager for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Air services, reports that they have four helicopters assigned to the Fire Program from April through to the end of October, primarily in the initial attack role, but also for fire line support and supply, crew training, detection, aerial ignition, infrared scanning, slinging, water bucketing, research and testing. At the peak of the 2011 fire season, Ontario had 181 contracted helicopters on fire operations, for a total of almost 4,000 hours flown.

Historically, fire season has varied across the country, allowing resources to be redeployed from one province or territory to another as needs have arisen. Provinces will make resources – firefighting crews, aircraft and other equipment – available to the national pool based on their current and forecast situations. This works well until a situation occurs as in the summer of 2006 when there was a period of extreme fire activity across the four western provinces and Ontario at the same time. No jurisdiction was able to release resources and each region found itself confronting serious shortages of personnel and aircraft on a daily basis.

As resources are stretched, technology is playing a larger role across the entire spectrum of wildland firefighting, from prediction, detection to suppression. Crowell, for example, speaks to the MNR’s dependency on new techniques to keep up with rapidly changing environment. “We are always looking at evolving aviation technology especially when it is cost effective and efficient in support of our fire and resource management clients,” he said. “We are using technology such as night vision goggles, evolving aircraft, tracking and satellite communication systems including UAVs. The MNR continues to work with university research projects and the National Research Council on emerging technology.”

As we have seen with Slave Lake in 2011 and too many other communities in the past decade, the aftermath of wildfires is a disaster by any definition. If Canada continues to see changes in its weather as predicted, warmer, drier and windier conditions nationwide, the scope of the resulting disasters may grow to magnitudes beyond our current comprehension. If, as predicted, the requirements for firefighting response in this country were to double by 2040, would we be able to cope? Helicopter operators from coast to coast are ready to meet the challenge.


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