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

Questions around rail safety, firefighter safety, cleanup near the rail yards and tracks, whistle cessation, etc were raised during the RDBN meeting with CN. (File photo)
‘Lot of our concerns are still not being heard,’ say RDBN directors on CN’s response

Frustrated over lack of solutions, despite communicating their concerns to CN

Barbara Patrick. (Submitted/Lakes District News)
Former Burns Lake local to play the first Indigenous character in a Hallmark movie

Barbara Patrick, a former LDSS student takes a huge step for the Indigenous community

The Burns Lake RCMP is supportive of having a ticketing bylaw in place even though there would be limitations on what they could ticket on. (Priyanka Ketkar photo/Lakes District News)
Burns Lake might be getting a ticketing bylaw

Will help extend RCMP’s authority to attend to noise complaints

(Dave Landine/Facebook)
VIDEO: Dashcam captures head-on crash between snowplow and truck on northern B.C. highway

Driver posted to social media that he walked away largely unscathed

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

B.C. Finance Minister Carole James and Premier John Horgan announce $5 billion emergency fund for COVID-19 unemployment and other relief, B.C. legislature, March 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
Carole James stays on to advise B.C. Premier John Horgan

Retired finance minister to earn a dollar a year

Langley RCMP issued a $2,300 fine to the Riverside Calvary church in Langley in the 9600 block of 201 Street for holding an in-person service on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, despite a provincial COVID-19 related ban (Dan Ferguson/Black Press Media)
Langley church fined for holding in-person Sunday service

Calvary church was fined $2,300 for defying provincial order

A pedestrian makes their way through the snow in downtown Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Wild winter, drastic swings in store for Canada this year: Weather Network

In British Columbia and the Prairies, forecasters are calling for above-average snowfall levels

NDP Leader John Horgan, left, speaks as local candidate Ravi Kahlon listens during a campaign stop at Kahlon’s home in North Delta, B.C., on April 18, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Top doctor urges Canadians to limit gatherings as ‘deeply concerning’ outbreaks continue

Canada’s active cases currently stand at 63,835, compared to 53,907 a week prior

A Canadian Pacific freight train travels around Morant’s Curve near Lake Louise, Alta., on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths along the railway tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks in Alberta and British Columbia has found that train speed is one of the biggest factors. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

Research concludes effective mitigation could address train speed and ability of wildlife to see trains

A airport worker is pictured at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. Wednesday, March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada extends COVID restrictions for non-U.S. travellers until Jan. 21 amid second wave

This ban is separate from the one restricting non-essential U.S. travel

Most Read