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How helicopter operators are battling Canada’s wildfires

By Lisa Gordon

Published on: August 3, 2023
Estimated reading time 23 minutes, 28 seconds.

Wildfires are burning coast to coast in a season like no other in recent memory. We check in with some of the air operators battling these stubborn and smoky Canadian blazes.

Everyone knows that Canadian forests are burning. Whether they’ve seen it in the news or smelled it in the air, the fallout from the 2023 wildfire season is significant and scary.

On June 28, Toronto’s air quality was among the worst in the world, thanks to forest fires burning in Quebec and northeastern Ontario. Just a day later, more than one million Americans were under air-quality alerts as wildfire smoke drifted south of the border, causing hazy skies in big U.S. cities like New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia. NASA reported that smoke from weeks-long fires in Quebec had reached southwestern Europe by June 26.

While last year’s Canadian wildfire season was relatively slow, this year it has started with a bang. Elkins Eye Visuals Photo

Compared to a relatively slow fire season in 2022, this year started with a bang in Western Canada. Crews were called out about two weeks earlier than normal in mid-April, foiling the usual staggered start that allows aerial firefighters and ground crews to ramp up at a measured pace.

Moving into July, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) reported 618 active fires across the country on July 3, with year-to-date blazes responsible for burning a total of 8.5 million hectares (21 million acres).

At VIH Helicopters in Victoria, B.C., the main focus has always been on heli-logging and construction, but director of operations Shane Palmer said the company is on standby to fight forest fires. With its fleet of four Kamov Ka-32 and six Sikorsky S-61 heavy helicopters, as well as Bell 212, Bell 407 and Bell 206 JetRanger III models, VIH’s helicopter division is fully booked for 2023 and into 2024. Usually, each machine flies between 200 and 250 hours per month and the company’s 30 pilots are busy year-round. (At the moment, VIH’s four Kamovs have been sidelined due to sanctions relating to the war in Ukraine.)

“We don’t count on fires,” explained Palmer. “When fires happen, we’re happy to help out, protecting human life and wildlife in a busy season. But we have our year planned out, and it’s often a balancing act between heli-logging jobs and fires.”

VIH Helicopters recently developed a power fill bucket that is capable of filling in less than 20 seconds in as little as 20 inches of water. Heath Moffatt Photo

By the third week in June, VIH had deployed all six of its S-61s, a 212, a 407 and three JetRangers to fight fires. The company had participated in efforts to quell the Donnie Creek fire, the largest wildfire B.C. has ever seen. VIH had also deployed two S-61s to fires in Alberta and one to Quebec.

Ironically, Palmer said the bigger fires are easier to work.

“There is more space for the aircraft and each aircraft has its own section to work,” he said. “It’s more difficult in interface areas where assets are at risk and there is a lot of smoke. But it’s something we’ve always done — you get in your circuit, do your radio calls, and if the visibility goes down you keep your separation and do lots of radio calls.”

The Donnie Creek wildfire was discovered on May 12 and has continued to burn ever since. By the end of June, it covered an area bigger than the province of Prince Edward Island.

A Wildcat Helicopters Bell 412 fights a fire near Osoyoos, British Columbia. Gustav Klotz Photo

“Every year, each province has a different fire season,” said Palmer. “In B.C., our season doesn’t normally start until the end of July or even August. But this year, it began in the middle of May near Fort St. John. That’s rare for B.C. We do have two machines on contract in Alberta and we are ready on the first of May each year. Quite often there are small grass fires, but this year was different and came on fast.”

With fire crews on high alert, VIH has been deploying its heavy helicopters to logging sites with a portable firefighting bucket on board.

“That way, we have everything we need to reposition quickly. Even if we have a local fire during logging, we want to be ready.”

Still, repositioning an S-61 isn’t a small feat. With two pilots, two engineers, a mobile shop, generator trailer and fuel truck, Palmer said it’s “a travelling road show when we move.”

While late June weather conditions allowed a brief reprieve from the frenetic pace that characterized the early weeks of the fire season, Palmer fully expects it to pick up again.

Talon’s AS365 is approved to fight fires at night with the Simplex Model 301 belly tank, which can hold up to 238 US gallons (901 liters) of water. Heath Moffatt Photo

“Mother Nature decides everything, but we’re at attention,” he said. “Personally, I haven’t seen a trend with each fire season getting worse. I’ve seen that it’s cyclical – this year we’ve been busy, but last year only three machines were used sporadically.”

New technology

Peter Murray, president of Talon Helicopters in Richmond, B.C., said the main difference with this fire season compared to years past is that more than two provinces have needed help at the same time.

“Once that happens, there aren’t enough resources from Canada or our mutual aid agreements with the U.S. to handle it,” he said. “Canada is full of forests and when things get dry, they become firewood. Our population has now reached 40 million people and human starts are up, and lightning, too.”

The wildfire situation across Canada on July 30, 2023. Graphic courtesy of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre

Talon Helicopters is capable of providing firefighting services across Canada, traveling as far as Quebec in the past. However, similar to VIH, Murray said those missions need to be balanced with year-round base work, including search-and-rescue, film, utility, and transport missions.

“Maybe up to 30 percent of our activity each year is associated with fires,” he said. “We’re a base operation out of Vancouver, so we keep helicopters here to service our regular customers.”

Still, Talon offers a unique capability as the owner of the only Transport Canada-approved night vision goggle (NVG) night fire attack medium helicopter. Its Airbus AS365 N2 Dauphin carries a Simplex 204-US gallon (901-liter) belly tank. In late June, Talon’s Dauphin and an AS350 B2 AStar were in the field fighting fires.

“We’ve been involved with night fire suppression on the Dauphin for a number of years and we are regularly providing that service now,” said Murray.

Alberta Wildfire spokesperson Josée St-Onge said the organization successfully tested the use of NVGs with Talon Helicopters during the 2022 wildfire season. The company’s AS365 N2 has performed a variety of wildfire management missions for the agency, including tanking, reconnaissance, ground operations support, and movement of personnel.

New flight and duty regulations that came into effect this year have placed an additional layer of complexity on top of an already taxing wildfire season. EB Adventure Photography Photo

“Night vision goggles amplify light up to 60,000 times,” explained St-Onge. “It allows pilots to work overnight and conduct activities like bucketing operations. Humidity is typically higher at night and wildfires are less active, so suppression efforts are more likely to be successful.”

Based on the testing results, Alberta Wildfire has entered into a five-year trial that will better assess the potential of night firefighting technology.

“We are in the early stages of our trial and it is hard to quantify the value or potential of night operations,” said St-Onge. “For now, it allows us to increase our nighttime firefighting efforts both in the air and on the ground, which increases our chance of success in containing wildfires and limiting growth. It is a useful tool and is used in conjunction with other firefighting tactics.”

A Balancing Act

Headquartered in Whistler, B.C., Blackcomb Helicopters has provincial bases in Pemberton, Squamish, Lillooet, Sechelt, Vancouver and Terrace, as well as an Alberta location in Calgary. Its 46 pilots fly a variety of missions: heli-skiing, sightseeing, hydro line external load work, utility line patrols, film, firefighting and adventure tourism. The company’s fleet includes Bell 212, Airbus AS350 models, and Airbus H135 helicopters.

Firefighters have arrived from around the world to help battle Canadian wildfires. Crews pose for a group photo in front of a HeliQwest Bell 205. Colton Barrett Photo

Blackcomb Helicopters works with provincial fire suppression agencies in B.C., Alberta and Ontario. Generally, about 40 percent of the company’s revenue comes from aerial firefighting, but this year it represents more. By late April, the requests for assets were coming in fast and furious. By May 6, eight of the company’s aircraft had been requisitioned for fire duty.

“We try to start every season with a certain number of aircraft predictably booked for activities, with other aircraft available for opportunities,” said Jonathan Burke, president of Blackcomb Helicopters. “This year, 80 percent of our assets were booked for fires. So far, we’ve had up to 12 helicopters in the field supporting wildfire ops throughout B.C. and Alberta, and out to Ontario. The Bell 212HP is our main workhorse with a proven track record.”

Chris Haslock, Blackcomb’s director of operations, said the quick ramp-up this year posed a challenge for the company’s training department, which schedules flights with each pilot to assess their long line and bucketing capabilities. To compensate, training began earlier than usual.

Graphic courtesy of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre

As an operation that performs a variety of missions falling under both 702 (aerial work) and 703 (air taxi) sections of the Canadian Air Regulations, Blackcomb Helicopters also found it challenging to interpret the new flight and duty time regulations that came into effect last December. While firefighting and utility work, for example, fall under 702, sightseeing is under 703 regulations.

“It’s been a challenge to balance 702 and 703 work,” reported Burke. “From a scheduling point of view for Chris [Haslock], it’s put a huge demand on him to deal with the two regimes. Plus, there’s been the great resignation of commercially-registered helicopter pilots. There’s not as many as there once was.”

Like many other operators, Blackcomb Helicopters has had a difficult time hiring seasonal pilots and maintenance staff.

“Most of our employees are full-time,” said Burke. “But finding seasonal crews is challenging. It’s the same for the fire agencies. We’re all having difficulties attracting labor. We used to work with just two pilots per aircraft and give time off in spring and fall. Now, with the new [flight and duty time] regulations, we need in excess of 2.5 pilots per aircraft.”

Provinces across the country have been impacted by the early start to wildfires in 2023. EB Adventure Photography Photo

He also said that while he believes fire seasons are generally cyclical in nature, the size and intensity of recent blazes is significant.

“Historically, you’d see the odd project fire here and there; but now, every other fire is a project fire that will likely be dealt with all summer long, with structures at risk and evacuation orders. It seems to be that every year is unprecedented now.”

Haslock agreed. “Last year in June was cool and wet; this year, it’s a different story. Mother Nature is at best unpredictable, but the ferocity and duration of these fires does seem to be increasing.”

He said Blackcomb crews are proud to help with firefighting efforts.

“We have a long history of serving the community in our backyard with search-and-rescue. When we see large wildfires like this affecting communities and affecting lives, we are compelled to switch our operations and answer the call. It’s something we feel strongly and passionately about.”

A nationwide ramp up

Further east, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) saw a slower start to the 2023 fire season. Fire information officer Isabelle Chenard said that throughout May, statistics for fire activity were still well below the seasonal 10-year average. However, a significant number of fires were confirmed throughout June and into July.

A Helicopter Transport Services Sikorsky CH-54B drops a load from its belly tank. Alberta Wildfire Photo

“As of July 3, we had 346 fires across the province [year to date], compared to 107 last year at the same time and 275 for the 10-year average,” she said. “Last season was a very quiet fire season for Ontario. The difference in the statistics is quite apparent for this time of year. When you’re looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see that each fire season is highly variable. It can change very quickly.”

The Ontario MNRF flies a mixed fleet of aerial firefighting aircraft, including six Airbus H130s; one Airbus AS350 B2; nine CL-415 waterbombers; six DHC-6 Twin Otters; and five DHC-2T Turbo Beavers. In addition, the MNRF has more than 45 medium and intermediate helicopters on contract for this fire season. Finally, Ontario has also contracted five heavy helicopters currently working mostly in the northwestern section of the province: a Sikorsky S-61N and UH-60 Black Hawk, two Airbus AS332 Super Pumas, and one Kaman K-Max.

Chenard also mentioned that 103 Mexican firefighters were undergoing training in Thunder Bay as of June 20, preparing to assist with fire control efforts.

“We are now experiencing a drying trend, with temperatures up to 35 C [95 F] across the far north,” she added. “That’s significant in terms of fire activity potential.”

Looking ahead, Chenard said Ontario continues to monitor the landscape for lightning storms while educating residents on how to prevent man-made starts.

While many of the assets fighting Canadian fires are based within the country, some aircraft are here thanks to reciprocal agreements that provide for cross-border assistance when needed.

Columbia Helicopters brought some Chinooks up to Alberta to help combat wildfires in the province. Skip Robinson Photo

One such company is Oregon-headquartered Columbia Helicopters, which had one Columbia Model 234UT Chinook heavy helicopter operating in Alberta at the end of June. The aircraft deployed from Sacramento, California, and is positioned at the heavy helicopter base in the northern Alberta community of High Level.  

“With the bulk of our fleet operating on international projects, N239CH is the only Standard Category Model 234 available to support fires in Canada,” said Columbia spokesperson Kayla Foulk. “Fortunately, the wildfire activity in the U.S. has been lower than predicted, which enables us to push our assets up north.”

Columbia also operates restricted category ex-military CH-47D Chinooks within the U.S.

Its Alberta-based Chinooks are now working multiple smaller fires that cover one large region, with mission locations changing daily. They are flying alongside four other heavy helicopters and several medium and light machines.

Regardless of where they are based or what they are flying, crews working to protect people, homes and other assets from the ravages of wildfire are committed to the job. In this busy fire season, it’s all hands on deck and operators are responding in kind.

“It’s very important work,” concluded Shane Palmer of VIH Helicopters. “Everyone is very proud to be part of the efforts to protect human life, wildlife and infrastructure. Sometimes, you’re doing your best and you can’t do anything about losses. It’s lump in your throat kind of stuff. Our crews are invested in this.”

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