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

Okanagan College students Michael Ochoa and Tallin Gregoire, both members of the Okanagan Indian Band, raised the Okanagan Nation Alliance flag on July 16, 2019,  outside the Vernon campus. (Karissa Gall photo)
First Nations reconciliation personified at Okanagan College

President Jim Hamilton’s foresight has opened post-secondary education doors for Okanagan College’s Indigenous students

Movie crews filmed a holiday parade in Summerland in July. The parade, filmed on Main Street in Summerland, is for the movie, The Christmas Yule Blog. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
47 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health region

1,538 total cases, 399 are active, ten in hospital

Employees at The Bargain! Shop pose with Santa at last year’s toy drive. There will be no photos with Santa this year to keep him healthy for Christmas, but the toy drive will be back for a fourth year. (Claire Palmer photo)
Fourth annual toy drive fundraiser underway

The Bargain! Shop is looking to raise $5,000 locally

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
B.C. records deadliest weekend of COVID-19 pandemic with 46 deaths; more than 2,300 cases

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides COVID-19 update

Salmon Arm RCMP officers attended two public COVID-19 demonstrations held in Salmon Arm on Saturday, Nov. 28.  (File photo)
Organizer of Salmon Arm COVID-19 demonstration fined $2,000 by RCMP

Police said some participants weren’t aware of the public health order prohibiting gatherings

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

Sunny the cat, who jumped out of the truck at the Revelstoke Landfill earlier this month, was quickly reunited with his owners. (Contributed)
Cat returns home with the help of two landfill workers

Sunny jumped out of the truck at the landfill in November

Christy Jordan-Fenton is the co-author of the book Fatty Legs, which has been mentioned amid the controversy of an Abbotsford school assignment on residential schools.
Fatty Legs co-author responds to Abbotsford class assignment on residential schools

Children’s book mentioned amid controversy at W. A. Fraser Middle School

Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka takes over as energy and mines critic for the B.C. Liberal opposition. Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick (right) moves from health critic to assistant deputy speaker. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals pick critics to take on Horgan’s NDP majority

Interim leader Shirley Bond takes seniors, long-term care

An impaired driver was found responsible for a crash on Highway 97 near Seacrest Hill in Oliver Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020 in Oliver. (Black Press file photo)
Impaired driver rolls vehicle in violent crash near Oliver

Vehicle crashed through a fence, tree and telephone line

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland listens to a question from a reporter on the phone during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Spending too little worse than spending too much, Freeland says as Canada’s deficit tops $381B

‘The risk of providing too little support now outweighs that of providing too much’

Still from a video surveillance camera of a man alleged to have stolen from several people at knife-point in Chilliwack (Rosedale) early on Nov. 28, 2020. (Facebook)
B.C. man defends his family against intruder, saves neighbour while wielding hockey stick

RCMP looking for footage that captures violent crime spree in Chilliwack

Most Read