Aerial Firefighting

The Dynamic Role of Helicopters
June 02, 2009
Some years are especially challenging for Canada’s aerial firefighters. No one can predict whether 2009 will be one of them – how many wildfires will occur and how weather conditions will affect efforts to fight them. But government forest protection agencies and aircraft operators must prepare in advance for whatever the coming fire season will throw at them. This is a major undertaking involving hundreds of people and millions of dollars worth of aircraft and equipment.

Helicopters take part in a myriad of aerial firefighting missions; some carry loads of water, retardant or foam in a belly tank

Helicopters and the people who fly, maintain, and manage them are an important part of aerial firefighting. Rappattack helicopters are used for initial response in areas unreachable by fire trucks; crews rappel down from the aircraft to combat fires. Helicopters are also used to evacuate injured and trapped persons from fire-threatened locations, sling heli-buckets and aerial ignition devices (for controlled burns), or carry a load of water, retardant or foam in a belly tank (heli-tankers). Other missions include transporting ground fire crews and their equipment, fire reconnaissance, mapping, infrared scanning, and testing technologies such as night vision goggles.

All provincial and most territorial governments have a forest protection agency. Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia each have a fleet of firefighting aircraft, entirely fixed-wing in most cases (Nova Scotia’s is entirely rotary-wing). Alberta and the Northwest Territories have Canadair water bombers operated by companies in partnership with the government. British Columbia and the Yukon contract air tanker services. Prince Edward Island rarely needs aerial firefighting resources. In many regions, helicopter operators are hired to provide fire suppression and operations support.

Some helicopters are equipped with a drip torch or Delayed Aerial Ignition Device (DAID) to light backburns and controlled burns. (Photo courtesy of Alpine Helicopters)
All provincial and most territorial governments have a forest protection agency. (Photos courtesy of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources-Aviation and Forest Fire Management (OMNR-AFFM))
On average, about 8,500 forest fires are reported each year in Canada, burning approximately 2.5 million hectares.
Government forest protection agencies and aircraft operators must prepare in advance for whatever the coming fire season will throw at them.  
A crew member moves away from the helicopter after completing a hover exit. (Photo courtesy of the B.C. Ministry of Forests and Range, Protection Branch)

In Canada’s second-largest province, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources-Aviation and Forest Fire Management (OMNR-AFFM) has assigned in years past, and will do so again this year, four helicopters – AS350 B2s and EC130 B4s – to firefighting. Three other aircraft and their crews are deployed throughout the province for fire support as needed. In most parts of the country, fire season starts in April and ends in October. On average, about 8,500 forest fires are reported each year in Canada, burning approximately 2.5 million hectares. When provincial or territorial firefighting resources become inadequate, aircraft and crews from other jurisdictions are brought in to battle wildfires. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) in Winnipeg handles co-ordination.

Part of the government work done before a fire season starts involves issuing a Request for Proposal (RFP) for helicopter services. Operators interested in bidding must meet provincial or territorial as well as Transport Canada requirements. Forest protection agency or aviation safety officers visit operators to determine whether they meet government standards. Bids from qualified operators proceed to the evaluation stage, and then contracts are awarded.

Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) members have expressed concern that the flight-hours requirement in provincial tenders falls short in judging a pilot’s ability to conduct firefighting flights. Furthermore, RFP requirements have kept pilots from acquiring fire suppression experience, which could be detrimental over the next decade and beyond as highly experienced pilots retire.

The HAC Pilot Qualifications Working Group, a subcommittee of the Air Taxi Committee, has been working to establish criteria for assessing firefighting flying skills. The Group is composed of 11 HAC members who are creating a comprehensive primary skill sets document. The Group’s goal is to have operators adopt the evaluation concepts as industry best practices while avoiding another certification requirement. The Group presented the results of its work at the 2009 HAC convention in Vancouver. (For more on the Group’s discussions at the HAC convention, see Ken Armstrong’s column.)

Government helicopter firefighting and support contracts range in duration from one to 80 days. In Ontario, for example, the average number of short-term hires – one to four days – is 190 per year. Aircraft types that have been contracted include the EC120 and EC130, AS350-series, A119, S-61, KA32, Eagle Single, and Bell 204, 205, 206, 212, and 214. Part of the preparation work between fire seasons is updating government databases with operator information so that later in the year when fires are raging, valuable time is not wasted trying to find companies with suitable equipment and crews.

Because aircraft must be available throughout the contract period, heavy maintenance has to be completed before the season begins. Engine and transmission changes, avionics upgrades, and other significant maintenance projects are done before aircraft are deployed. Firefighting equipment such as heli-buckets and hydraulic packs undergo maintenance to get them in good working order for the upcoming season. AMEs are sent with helicopters to forward bases so that field maintenance can be done on site. Prior to the start of a fire season, engineers and pilots are briefed by government staff on fire suppression operations, practices and policies.

Training is an important part of aerial firefighting and takes place between fire seasons. Ground fire crews learn to exit helicopters with their equipment and pilots practice water drops, hover exits, equipment slinging, co-ordination with other aircraft, and more. The control zone around a wildfire becomes a busy location in which there is little room for error. To operate safely in it with other helicopters, a bird-dog airplane, water or chemical retardant bombers and ground fire crews, pilots are required to not only perform their flying tasks proficiently but also understand how their aircraft is choreographed with others in a firefighting “dance.” Operator and provincial or territorial agency training provides a solid foundation for safe operations.

To help co-ordinators track firefighting and support aircraft and orchestrate their operations, technologies such as Automated Flight Following (AFF) have been created. AFF was developed in B.C., home to some of the world’s most challenging aerial firefighting because of the terrain. The main advantages of AFF are GPS-tracking in near-real-time and enhanced situational awareness, a crucial part of effective aviation asset management.

The history of AFF goes back 20 years when the B.C. Forest Service recognized the need for an integrated decision support system. Automatic Flight Following, which was initially FM-based, transitioned to satellite technology by the late 1990s. It is not only used by forest protection departments in Canada but also American agencies. Where required, commercial operators must equip their aircraft with AFF technology meeting the AFF data transfer specifications issued by the CIFFC. AFF data standards developed in B.C. have been adopted nationally and internationally.

The integrated decision support system developed in B.C. not only utilizes AFF (by displaying aircraft locations based on received data), but also incorporates fire reporting; chronological event logging; resource and personnel tracking; electronic requests for assets; GIS spatial information and imagery; fire behaviour; and weather. The computer-based system, aptly named Dispatch, has proven to be a highly effective firefighting management tool.

Because communications with pilots flying firefighting or support missions is critical, forest protection agencies require contracted aircraft to be equipped with a communication system that meets their standard. Outside of B.C., low-band FM radios satisfy the requirement in several regions, but in Canada’s most westerly province as well as the northern part of the country where repeater stations are very few, aircraft satellite communication equipment is mandatory. Because of its utility, SATCOM in Canadian firefighting aircraft is common.

Technology has improved aerial firefighting greatly during the past half century. Between fire seasons, forest protection agencies and operators review new technologies to determine their suitability for fire detection and suppression. Examples covered in past issues of this publication are night vision goggles (NVGs) and the Fire Attack Storm (FAST) Bucket.

In the summer of 2007, OMNR-AFFM personnel began NVG testing and training. Using NVGs, crews found that it was considerably easier to detect fires, even small ones such as campfires. OMNR-AFFM evaluation of NVGs continues. Other night vision technology (NVT) applications are precise mapping of active fires and extractions of firefighters in emergency situations. Two helicopters in the Ontario government’s fleet, an AStar and an EC130, have been modified with NVT.

Across the nation, the 2009 fire season has arrived. Will this year’s summer be as hot and dry as it was in B.C. in 2003 or Ontario in 2005 when hundreds of wildfires razed forests, homes and businesses? No one at the forest protection agencies or helicopter operators knows, but whatever happens, the professionals who combat wildfires and support firefighting operations will be ready.

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