In this photo provided by Shannon Kiss, smoke from the CalWood Fire billows, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, as seen from Gunbarrel, Colo. (Shannon Kiss via AP)

In this photo provided by Shannon Kiss, smoke from the CalWood Fire billows, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, as seen from Gunbarrel, Colo. (Shannon Kiss via AP)

‘First guys out:’ Western Canadian air tanker fleet busy despite drop in wildfires

CEO believes wildfires have become more dangerous in recent years as people live closer to where they start

A family-run company providing air-tanker support to control menacing wildfires in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Yukon is a little less busy these days, but it has nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It has been really quiet on the fire front in both Alberta and B.C. the past two or three years. You get areas of intense activity and then a lot of tedium waiting for things to happen,” says Paul Lane, vice-president and chief operating officer of Airspray Airtankers, which has a maintenance hangar at the airport in Red Deer, Alta.

There have been about 700 wildfires in Alberta this year with 32 square kilometres lost compared with the five-year average of 1,300 fires and 4,100 square kilometres burned.

In B.C. there have been about 650 fires with 154 square kilometres lost compared with to the average of 1,758 blazes and 3,690 square kilometres of forest burned.

Airspray has contracts with governments and is on call each fire season.

The backbone of its western Canadian fleet is the Lockheed Electra, a four turboprop-engine plane, about the size of a 737, It’s equipped with a 12,000-litre belly tank that drops a mud slurry fire retardant from about 45 metres above the ground.

“It allows the ground crews to go in and work safely in terms of extinguishing the fire. It creates essentially a firebreak and we can drop anywhere from a twelfth of a load to a full salvo,” says Lane.

“Typically these are the first guys out, particularly in Western Canada.”

The fleet also includes 10 smaller Bird Dog aircraft, which carry command-and-control air-attack officers, who oversee how a fire is fought, including management of ground crews and helicopters dropping water.

Lane says the business that has been in operation for nearly 50 years. It has 54 aircraft with 35 based in Canada. The U.S. operation is located in Chico, Calif.

“We are running skimmer aircraft in Washington and Oregon and so those aircraft were quite busy particularly toward the end of the season.”

Raging fires in both states, as well as in California, have burned millions of hectares, caused deaths and destroyed hundreds of structures in the U.S. west coast’s worst fire season in 70 years.

The winter months involve full maintenance on the air fleet.

Lane says the 60 pilots working for Airspray have at least 8,000 hours experience before being hired. They are recalled at the end of February for retraining before the fire season gets underway.

“Many of our pilots have been with us for many years and so they work for us in the summer and many of them did work for the airlines or did other types of flying in the winter.

“What you don’t want is any complacency in the cockpit, particularly when you’re flying that close to the ground.”

Lane believes wildfires have become more dangerous in recent years because people are living closer to where fires start.

“If you look at the canyons in California, they’re more and more becoming populated with extremely large houses and infrastructure,” he says.

“Even in Alberta, even in B.C., you’ll see much more pipeline infrastructure, much more infrastructure around cellphone towers, much more infrastructure with pipelines. Those elements give a greater need of defensible infrastructure.”

ASLO READ: Here’s how you and your pet can stay safe from the wildfire smoke blanketing B.C.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Wildfires

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Wayne Allen's graduation photo from Chemainus Secondary School. (Photo submitted)
Brother charged with murder in Chemainus teenager’s Ontario death

Jesse James Allen stands accused in the death of Wayne Allen, a 2020 Chemainus Secondary grad

The frequent disruptions to water service in Chemainus are expected to be a lot less after North Cowichan replaces the Smiley Road water main. (File photo)
Smiley Road water main in Chemainus to be replaced

$890,000 project expected to be completed this spring

Cowichan Tribes open up vaccinations for members who are 40 and older. (File photo)
Cowichan Tribes opens up vaccinations for members 18 and older

Vaccination sessions to be held over weekend

Kim McGregor died in the Feb. 14 hit-and-run accident in Chemainus. (Photo submitted)
Victim identified in Valentine’s Day Chemainus hit-and-run

Kim McGregor grew up in Chemainus and had recently returned to be close to his parents

The Cowichan Valley Regional District will use fire hydrants to flush water systems in Youbou, Honeymoon Bay, Mesachie Lake and Bald Mountain in March. (Robert Barron/Gazette)
Water system flushing in Cowichan Lake communities in March may cause discolouration warns CVRD

Water pipes in Youbou, Honeymoon Bay, Mescahie Lake, and Bald Mountain targeted

Dr. Bonnie Henry leaves the podium after talking about the next steps in B.C.’s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
COVID: 589 new cases in B.C., and 7 new deaths

No new outbreaks being reported Feb. 26

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A crossover utility vehicle smashed through the front of a business on Bowen Road on Friday evening. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Vehicle smashes all the way inside business in Nanaimo

No serious injuries reported after incident at Venue Financial Centres on Friday

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires B.C. wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents bill to delay B.C.’s budget as late as April 30, and allow further spending before that, B.C. legislature, Dec. 8, 2020. (Hansard TV)
How big is B.C.’s COVID-19 deficit? We’ll find out April 20

More borrowing expected as pandemic enters second year

The first of 11 Dash 8 Q400 aircraft's have arrived in Abbotsford. Conair Group Inc. will soon transform them into firefighting airtankers. (Submitted)
Abbotsford’s Conair begins airtanker transformation

Aerial firefighting company creating Q400AT airtanker in advance of local forest fire season

RCMP say a woman turned herself in to police after hitting a pedestrian and fleeing the scene of the accident in downtown Nanaimo on Friday morning. (File photo)
Driver flees, then turns herself in after hitting pedestrian in downtown Nanaimo

RCMP say woman was struck in marked crosswalk after driver ran red light

The Canada Revenue Agency says there were 32 tax fraud convictions across the country between April 2019 and March 2020. (Pixabay)
Vancouver man sentenced to 29 months, fined $645K for tax evasion, forgery

Michael Sholz reportedly forged documents to support ineligible tax credits linked to homeownership

Most Read