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Talon Helicopters' Airbus AS365 N2 is equipped with a Simplex 240-US gallon (901-litre) belly tank. Heath Moffatt Photo

Alberta expands night firefighting program to 3 helicopters, building on lessons learned since 2022

By Lisa Gordon | June 4, 2024

Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 13 seconds.

Coming hot on the heels of its worst wildfire season on record, Alberta’s 2024 provincial budget included an additional $151 million to help fight future blazes.

The extra money was allocated for more firefighters, but also to new aerial technologies the province says will help to protect both communities and forests. Specifically, these include drone surveillance, artificial intelligence to predict fire outbreaks and behaviour, and the expansion of a 2022 pilot program that introduced helicopter nighttime aerial firefighting to the province.

“We’re always looking to be innovative and to be on the forefront of technology in terms of managing wildfires in Alberta,” said Mike May, provincial aviation specialist in the Wildfire Management Branch, Alberta Forestry and Parks. “In 2022, we decided to trial night vision for firefighting. Our objectives were to increase our knowledge with this technology, see what type of training would be required, and find out how feasible it would be for our staff in terms of equipment requirements, logistics and operational considerations.”

He said Alberta was interested in evaluating night vision technology as it applied to key missions such as nighttime fire reconnaissance and assessment; physical fire suppression; ground crew support; and crew movement.

The province partnered with Richmond, B.C.-based Talon Helicopters for that initial pilot project two years ago. It was an unqualified success, with 91 aerial firefighting hours flown at night. Each flight was a valuable learning opportunity.

“At the end of 2022, it was determined there is a place for this technology moving forward in Alberta,” said May. “So, we posted a request for proposals (RFP) on the Alberta government procurement site, and eventually awarded a five-year contract to Talon.”

Peter Murray, president of Talon Helicopters, is proud of his company’s firefighting work in Alberta.

“To my knowledge, we were awarded the first ever night helicopter firefighting contract in Canada, a five-year contract with Alberta,” he said. “We’re now in the second year of that contract. We’re a small company working the leading edge of a big thing.”

Talon is flying its Airbus AS365 N2 Dauphin night fire attack medium helicopter, equipped with a Simplex 240-US gallon (901-litre) belly tank. Filled by snorkel in about 20 seconds, fire retardant foam is mixed into the water in the tank before it is deployed.

Murray believes Talon’s Dauphin is the first helicopter to carry out NVG firefighting in Canada.

“We chose the 365 because it has a very solid three-axis autopilot system. The actual airframe itself is proven; it’s been around for decades – and it’s fast. It’s perfect for initial night fire attack.”

In the summer of 2023, Talon’s aircraft helped fight wildfires during Alberta’s worst fire season on record, where a total of 2,211,900 hectares of land were burned.

“We found it very beneficial (in 2023),” said May. “On a lot of these large fires, we were strapped for ground and supporting resources. The helicopter was invaluable to do night recon and drop foam on vital parts of a fire to hold it overnight. There were a few situations where ground crews wanted to finish a job and we were able to pick them up after legal dark, or support them working all night.”

On board the Dauphin is a Talon pilot and an Alberta Wildfire staff member trained in night vision flying. May said the latter focuses on logistics and operations, including mapping the fire, identifying targets where water drops would be most effective, and locating any spots outside the fire guard that should be reinforced.

Taloon Helicopters pilots Kelsey Wheeler (left) and Jarrett Lunn (right) flying with NVGs. Heath Moffatt Photo
Talon Helicopters pilots Kelsey Wheeler (left) and Jarrett Lunn (right) flying with NVGs. Heath Moffatt Photo

Admitting he was a bit sceptical of NVG technology at the outset, May now says the goggles do what they claim to do, which is amplify light up to 60,000 times. This allows the helicopter crew to do the same work they’d do during the day, at a time when their efforts are more effective.

“It’s so valuable because in the fire environment, temperature generally decreases and relative humidity increases after sunset,” he explained. “Winds usually die down and fire behavior decreases, so it’s much easier to put it out then. We can make progress instead of just keeping up — and you can make a big impact when the fire is sitting down, or laying low.”

May also said Talon’s NVG-equipped helicopter was used for night reconnaissance. As an example, he recalled a time when he was incident commander during a fire near High Level, Alberta. If the fire jumped the Peace River, that was the trigger to evacuate a nearby community. The helicopter flew up and down the river that night, monitoring the fire’s progress.

And then there were three

Following the program’s success in 2023, May said the Alberta government put out a tender for two more helicopters equipped for nighttime firefighting. Those contracts were awarded to Ascent Helicopters of Parksville, B.C., with a Bell 212 medium, and Montreal-based Canadian Helicopters with a Sikorsky S-61 heavy helicopter.

All three helicopters working in Alberta for the current 2024 fire season are NVG-equipped with snorkels and belly tanks, noted May. He added that nighttime bucketing is not performed for safety reasons.

Typically, the NVG-equipped helicopters deploy at the tail end of the day so they can assess the fire area, identify any hazards and look for water sources before transitioning to night operations. While the Dauphin and the Bell 212 carry an Alberta Wildfire staff member on board, the S-61 does not. Accordingly, May said they usually try to “buddy up” the S-61 with one of the other aircraft — however, all three helicopters have also operated independently.

When asked about the lessons learned to date, May is candid.

“I would have liked to have had one more year with one helicopter, just to solidify our processes and procedures,” he reflected. “It’s still quite new, so we’re ironing out a few wrinkles. Safety is number one in everything we do, and we have identified a few key areas where we’ve made procedural changes.”

Among these are adjusting dispatcher schedules to ensure consistent night flight following for all helicopters; nailing down the best procedure for switching between day and night ops (when helicopters aren’t needed at night, they can be tasked to fly during the day); and ensuring available fuel and aircraft security across the province.

“We are spending a lot of taxpayer money, so we need to be diligent and utilize these assets effectively,” said May. “You don’t just send them out to tank water on a fire. We want achievable targets out there. The S-61 delivers a great punch; it dropped 112 tanks of water in one night on the recent Fort McMurray fire – that’s over 100,000 gallons of water and foam. The S-61 brings its own fuel truck and equipment, and two pilots who are IFR rated — so that’s an added bonus if weather deteriorates.”

He said nighttime operations have been smooth so far.

“All three aircraft working together is quite easy, once we all get in the same circuit with lots of communication on the radios. Honestly, it is much lower stress than flying a fire in the daytime, even with the three machines. I was on the Dauphin working the Fort McMurray fire, with all three machines there. We deployed out at 4:30 p.m., and the radios were non-stop in our headsets, with very congested airspace. We returned and re-deployed later. Once everyone left, it was quiet and we could get to our night work.”

The AS365 N2's water tank can be filled with a snorkel in about 20 seconds. Heath Moffatt Photo
The AS365 N2’s water tank can be filled with a snorkel in about 20 seconds. Heath Moffatt Photo

Moving forward, May hopes Alberta’s night aerial firefighting program will continue to grow.

“I envision this lessening the impact of some of our big May fires,” he said. “If we can work those fires around the clock, I think we could really reduce the number of escaped and catastrophic fires like we’ve seen in recent years. We can lessen the impact of those large events, especially during nights when fires are less active.”

To May’s knowledge, Alberta is the only Canadian province using helicopters to fight fires at night. He encouraged other fire agencies to look into the technology and said they are welcome to reach out to Alberta Wildfire to learn more about their experience.

“The key is crawling before walking, and walking before running,” he said. “It’s working out quite well with our three helicopters now.”

For Murray, fighting fires at night makes total sense.  

“It’s almost like search-and-rescue; it’s not 9-to-5 banker’s hours,” he said. “A fire continues to burn and quite often changes behaviors at night. In Canada, I believe only Alberta has taken the initiative to determine how to employ night fire attack, but we are confident these kinds of night fire attacks will be the norm.”

Murray added that Talon is looking at acquiring more AS365s for night flying.

“We have the ability to build this plan with this airframe and we know its capabilities,” he said. “We will continue to add to that.”

Noting that wildfire agencies aren’t known for making quick decisions, Murray acknowledged that’s a good thing when it comes to maintaining safety. However, he also said night firefighting is no more dangerous than fighting fires during the day.

“The biggest issue for me is I hear people that have never worn goggles call it risky and dangerous, but that’s just made up. We actually do it. NVG goggles have turned nighttime flying into daytime flying.”

He concluded: “You need an agency, like Alberta, that is open to change — open to listening to the people in the field. But when the decisions are made and night firefighting becomes more common, we’ll be here ready to go.”

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