Fighting fires in northern Saskatchewan

"Like Smokey says,' Put your campfire out,!'" veteran air tanker pilot Corey Nordal told the Nov. 8, 2001, meeting of the Roland Groome Chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society. "So we don't have to do it for you -- when it's a lot bigger."

Corey started work with the predecessor of what's now called the provincial department of Environment and Resource Management in 1973 as a conservation officer. He knew that some of the earlier COs had used aircraft in their work and says with a chuckle that he wanted "to kick them out of their seats and take over from them!"

Alas, that government program was abolished, so he instead earned a private pilot's licence, and then a commercial ticket, simultaneously specializing in forest firefighting. When the department acquired three Canso waterbombers previously operated under contract by Prince Albert-based Norcanair, he became a co-pilot, taking a turn on the Beech Baron 55 twins used as "bird dog" or spotter aircraft, and next as pilot on the Canso, logging a total of 1,000 on this type.

When the province, under an agreement with the federal government, took delivery of four new CL-215 aircraft in 1987 and 1988, he became a pilot on that type and has been flying it ever since.

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The Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management (SERM) department is the provincial government agency responsible for what Corey rightly calls "the environmental treasures" of the province: fish, wildlife, land, and forests. (Also, now clean air and water) "Practically everything," says Corey, who noted there is legislation covering the fighting of fires, the Prairies and Forest Fire Act.

In practical terms, the priorities for protection is:

* human life;

* human development,

* commercial forest, and;

* noncommercial forests.

Bearing in mind that forests cover more than half of the province, the main area for firefighting operations is in the commercial forest zone, which is also the one farthest south. Fires in it are hit "hard and heavy with every resource we can -- until they're out."

In the zone north of the Churchill River (in which there is much less commercial timber), SERM will fight fires "with as many resources as we can," an obvious consideration being the distance from air tanker bases and logistical requirements to haul and supply efforts far from a headquarters.

In the very far north of the province, fires won't be fought unless they threaten some human habitation or structures.  The department is currently beginning to create an updated fire policy to take into account "values at risk".

The "great majority" of forest fires are caused by lightning. Human-linked causes take a second place. Ironically, a big problem is that past firefighters have done a "very good job" of fighting fires in the past, leaving a heavy fuel buildup on the forest floor. When it catches fire, it burns fiercely -- all this "because we've fought fires so successfully until now."

Firefighters and their planners thus have come face to face with the scientific fact that fire is part of the natural system. It has been around for long time, "and will be around for a long time."

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Northern Air Operations (NAO) is the arm of SERM that operates firefighting aircraft. Saskatchewan's use of aircraft over its forests began in the 1920s when RCAF Vedette flying boats -- more like "flying canoes", Corey said -- operated over the near north.

In the early 1930s, with the constitutional transfer of natural resources to the Prairie provinces, some of these Vedettes were acquired by the Saskatchewan government for fire-spotting and northern patrol. (The remains of a provincial government Vedette that crashed in 1936 between Prince Albert and La Ronge is on display in the local history museum in Buckland, about 30 km north of Prince Albert, on Highway 2.)

Various other aircraft were used in the 1940s and '50s, a decade that saw the development of "rollover tanks" in the floats of light firefighting aircraft like Beavers and Otters. (Saskatchewan was the first Canadian jurisdiction to use smokejumpers in firefighting. This unit, one of whose ex-members spoke to our chapter in the mid-1990s, was disbanded in 1966 or '67. "They said, 'Why are we doing this? We'll use helicopters to take them in there and they won't have to jump. They can get as close -- and without getting a tamarack or whatever in their butts," Corey said.)

Corey said 'jumpers still are used in the northwestern U.S. and Alaska, and he recently heard that a new unit has been formed for use in northern B.C.

These were used in northern Saskatchewan until about 1972, when Prince Albert-based Norcanair acquired three much-larger Cansos that had been among 18 of these amphibians specially modified for air tanker work by Field Aviation. The provincial government acquired these same three aircraft in 1980 and used them until their retirement in 1998.

Presently used by the provincial government are six ex-navy Trackers acquired in 1975 and four Canadair CL-215 (Series 5) machines built under a joint federal-provincial initiative in 1987-88. Two additional '215s (used Quebec government aircraft built in the early 1970s) were acquired in 1997. Working with them are three Beech Baron 55s used as spotters or "bird dogs" with the six 215s, one Piper Cheyenne used as a spare bird dog and personnel/parts transport, and two twin-engine Aerostars (used as "bird dogs" with the speedier Trackers).

Their main base is at La Ronge, where the large SERM maintenance hangar can hold two '215s at one time, with Birddogs and Tracker parked around them.

The La Ronge facility also has a certified avionics shop, $4 million of spare parts in inventory and the capability of doing overhauls of many components that are hard to find because of the age of the aircraft. The Trackers, for example, were all built in the late 1950s and the recently retired Cansos went back to the middle of the Second World War. It does landing gear overhauls for other provinces' CL-215s on a cost-recovery basis.

The annual schedule for this maintenance facility sees all overhauls and heavy maintenance done in the quiet autumn and winter periods. Wings come off for non-destructive testing. Landing gear overhauls and engine changes take place. (For the record, CL-215s have a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-2800s of 2,100 horsepower each, while the Trackers have Curtiss-Wright engines of 1480 horsepower.

Saskatchewan's CL-215s log a little over 200 flying hours each year, compared with about 80 hours for Quebec's aircraft and 100 or 110 for Ontario's. "The airframes are holding up, but the engines are showing their age," he said.

Spring sees the aircraft prepared for operations and summer maintenance is "day-to-day", reflecting the tempo of operations. (Several recent springs have seen '215s operating briefly from the Regina airport. That's because SERM fears an early fire season and needs aircraft operational and crews "current" on them before all the ice has left northern lakes. Last Mountain Lake, on the other hand, is far to the south of La Ronge and, being shallow, loses its ice relatively early. (When the Cansos were being used, one quiet July weekend brought all three to CFB Moose Jaw's annual airshow. Having some time to pass before their scheduled drop, the Cansos took off and set down on Buffalo Pound Lake, where cottagers inevitably spotted them. "Out came the boats; the crews gave tours and there were happy people with the novelty of the aircraft on the water!" Corey recalled.)

Aircraft are all serviced on a 50-hour progressive maintenance program. The La Ronge facility has about 35 air maintenance engineers including several apprentices.

Corey works in the flight operations department, "putting the product on the ground where you want it." It has 29 pilots on staff to fly the bird dogs and tankers. SERM does not operate any of its own helicopters, preferring to hire them from contractors. (Required from any helicopter is a standard FM radio package. "If they don't have that on board, they don't get hired." The importance of good radio communications was illustrated by a story Corey told about a recent fire near Pelican Narrows. In the air near it was a veritable airshow: six CL-215s, three Trackers, plus bird dogs, helicopters -- and the normal summer floatplane traffic into the northern settlement. "If you lose a radio, you're outta there," he said.)

For pilots, the ceilings on flying hours are 10 hours on any given day, 120 hours in 30 days and 300 hours over 90 days. And occasionally, they bump right up against those ceilings: the firefighting seasons of 1988, '91, '95, and '98 were particularly heavy; last summer was "relatively quiet," though.

In addition to the main base at La Ronge, SERM has six other bases to which aircraft can be deployed: Buffalo Narrows, Prince Albert, Meadow Lake, Hudson Bay, Baker Narrows and Stony Rapids. Under long-standing interprovincial agreements, firefighting aircraft and crews are "quite frequently" dispatched across the country in quiet times at home in order to help other provinces and territories fight their fires. "We've had machines from Newfoundland to Quebec, right through to the Yukon and B.C." he said. There is a special cost-recovery formula for out-of-province operations. A CL-215, for example, runs to about $3,300 per day, plus $2850 per flying hour. (To ease the financial firefighting burden on provinces and territories, the federal government will put in funding up to a certain "ceiling" or pre-specified percentage.)

As for operations south of the 49th Parallel, Saskatchewan's ground crews are frequently deployed to the American northwest, but as for our aircraft, "we've been close to getting over the border, but not yet."

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Fires are found in a number of different ways: by aerial patrols, by the network of fire towers that the province has maintained for decades or by other human observation.

However a fire is found, time matters. The faster that aircraft -- either "skimmers" (amphibious aircraft that can refill their tanks from lakes) or the faster Trackers are dispatched, the smaller is the fire. Leading the way for the tankers are smaller, nimbler "bird dog" aircraft that can acquire the target and give instructions. That was one of the reasons behind the acquisition of the Aerostars in the mid-1990s: at 230 mph, the Trackers are considerably faster than the CL-215s and the Barons, which would be outrun by the Trackers on any flight over 60 miles. If not for the Aerostars' speed, "the Trackers would be forced to circle and wait for the bird dog."

The bird dog aircraft can be thought of as the co-ordinator of the initial aerial attack, carrying a pilot, who communicates with other aircraft in the area, and an air attack officer, an experienced firefighting manager who liaises with the regional fire control centre and with the ground crews "and plans how we'll attack the fire, deciding where the first load will go and then where the rest will go and whether they should get 'reloads'."

Reduced to its simplest terms, "all we do with the CL215 is go back and forth to the lake as fast as we can." (Occasionally, in the absence of bird dogs, tankers are sent out by themselves, their pilots liaising directly with ground crews to fight the fire. "It's a big team effort," Corey said.

Ground crews arrive, generally in helicopters, reflecting the fact that unless it's a relatively small blaze or a grass fire that can be completely smothered from the air, "all we can do (from the air) is slow it down."

"Just like any other thing, the glory jobs are 'up there'," chuckled Corey. "The ground crews actually put the things out."

The chemical used to attack fire is actually a liquid fertilizer with a red dye, and is carried onboard the Tracker aircraft.

In the CL-215, a Class A fire fighting foam is carried in tanks aboard the aircraft, then injected into the on-board water tanks in the bottom of the hull. That's enough for the standard four-hour flight, skimming lakes and dropping it.

It is generally dropped at about 105 knots from about 30 feet above the treetops, or about 135-140 feet above ground level, which gives enough time for the water and foam to mix in the air on the way down, resulting "in a big, bubble mess on the forest floor."

If an aircraft releases retardant from too low an altitude, the result is broken treetops, creating a danger to ground crews in the area and more work in mopping up the fire.

From a pilot's perspective, dropping retardant can cause occasional excitements -- as when a fire has gone through the area before "and you can get trees that are higher than the others ... when you a preliminary survey, you have to watch for it."

Pilots must be particularly careful during evening hours of long summer days "because of the possibility of obstacles settling into the haze."

Another challenge is judging one's height by the aircraft's distance above the tree canopy, a process that, if not watched carefully, can bring the aircraft lower and lower. "You have to get away from using the tree canopy as the height for your altimeter setting," said Corey, who observed that a pilot's first run over a target fire, with its smoke and potential obstacles, "is always a butt-tightening experience."

His point is clear: safety first. "If you can't see through to the other side, then we change the angle we attack at and try to work around on the side."

The safety issue must be taken in a realistic perspective: since the province began operating its own tankers in the mid-1970s, it has lost only one aircraft: a Tracker that ran out of fuel and made a forced landing near Buffalo Narrows in 1982.

The Trackers are faster than the '215s, meaning they can reach fires as quickly as possible. But, unlike the '215s, they cannot skim water from lakes. The Trackers must return to the closest tanker base and reload.

The Tracker has four tanks, which are computer-activated, meaning they can be dropped singly or in combinations. Each door controls about 200 gallons. The goal of these initial attacks is to "cut the head of the fire off; stop any advance," Corey said. Follow-up aircraft contain it further.

Retardant -- which is effective even when dry -- can be dropped so as to create a safe area ahead of the fire in which a controlled burn can be set. The CL-215 is amphibious and carries 1,200 check gallons of water, plus foam. Between three or four gallons of the foam retardant are mixed with 1,200 gallons of water. The CL-215 has a two-door system that can be activated singly or together. "It just comes out in a great big blob," Corey said.

(For comparison's sake, the two remaining examples of the massive Martin Mars flying boat based at Sproat Lake on Vancouver Island can carry 6,000 gallons, each drop covering two acres, compared with the CL-215's coverage of about 300 by 75 Feet. Alas, the Mars' contract with B.C. forestry firms has expired and these massive fiftysomething-year-old aircraft last summer were used on a freelance basis to fight fires in Washington state.

When "skimming" or reloading the CL-215's water tanks, about two miles of lake is needed for the aircraft to safely approach, land, take aboard water through a pair of ports in the lower rear fuselage, and then accelerate and climb. "So if you have something happen, you can stop again."

Skimming is done at about 70 miles an hour "and it's just momentum that drives the water into the tanks." (Skimming with the Canso made for an interesting experience. Providing the water was calm, "it wasn't too bad, but when the waves were larger, then there was a tremendous amount of shaking going on because of the [Canso's] flat hull." So much shaking, in fact, that the instrument panel temporarily disappeared into a blur. "It was heavy work," said Corey, who added that "the '215 is a lot better," because it has a more sophisticated hull shape and even four-foot waves "is a little bit like riding along one of our country roads." None of Saskatchewan's CL-215s have hit reefs, but those of other provinces have done so, ringing up a tab of $1.25 million for repairs.

Suppose that two aircraft make the first attack. They'll go for the head of the fire -- that part of the fire that is advancing, with the wind behind it -- and then work on the flanks to keep it from heading off in other directions. The forest floor, post-drop, is coated with foam. "It looks like a blizzard has gone by." Because the foam is nontoxic, incidentally, ground crews can safely walk in it, though they're advised to "watch and make sure you don't get it into your eyes because it's very salty." The aircraft leave when the firefighting objective has been met or when they get a call for a higher priority target, or when the first is "totally out of control" or when there are aircraft mechanical or safety concerns.

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Though Saskatchewan's firefighting aircraft are able and some of them are relatively new, they share a concern of firefighting operations all over North America. Spare parts, trained AMEs and fuel for such older, piston-engined aircraft are getting harder to find. "What's going to happen is that we're probably got to be going to turbine engines." The only question is "how?"

Converting the Trackers to turbine engines is being looked at "seriously" but the CL-215s are another matter. After experimenting with a conversion kit that fitted turboprop engines into a handful of CL-215s, Canadair/Bombardier gave up the project, saying it couldn't make money on it. Indeed, it has been calculated that the cost of this conversion is about 80 per cent of the cost of a brand new CL-415, which uses the same basic airframe, but with new features, like much greater power, easier controls and even air conditioning for the crews. Corey has hitched a ride in a '415 and found it to be "just incredible". Of the '215, he says: ""They're a lot of fun to fly when you talk about performance. I'm waiting for the next step and, hopefully, it comes along before I get a chance to say good-bye to the organization."

All this technology and dedication -- because of lightning strikes and human carelessness.

"This is what we're all about" said Corey, summing up. "We go and fight fires. "

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