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“Stopping Wildfires: Using Aircraft to Fight Fires”

Wildfire season in Canada has already kicked off, and the indicators suggest that this year could surpass the unprecedented fire activity witnessed in 2023. In the battle against such extensive blazes, aerial firefighting teams emerge as pivotal players.

The statistics from recent years underscore the escalating scale of the challenge. Alberta, for instance, typically conducts around 143 air tanker missions annually. However, in 2023, this number skyrocketed to 502. Similarly, the British Columbia Wildfire Service, which usually averages about 560 tanker missions per season, saw a significant surge to 816 missions last year.

Amidst this escalating demand, Conair, headquartered in British Columbia, stands out as a significant force. Boasting over 90 pilots and 70 aircraft, Conair proudly claims to operate the largest privately owned fixed-wing aerial firefighting fleet globally. The company extends its services, including amphibious and land-based tankers along with trained pilots, not only to the Western provinces but also to Yukon and Alaska.

Each spring, Conair pilots undergo rigorous training, encompassing ground exercises, on-wing maintenance, and simulated aerial missions. This year, CBC News had the opportunity to witness these preparations firsthand at Conair’s headquarters in Abbotsford, B.C. Ryan Gahan, Conair’s fleet manager for air attack operations, emphasized the importance of realistic simulations in preparing for real-life firefighting scenarios.

The core objective of aerial firefighting is twofold: to cool down the fire and to restrict its spread, thereby enabling ground crews to safely intervene and contain it. However, executing such maneuvers from the air demands meticulous coordination and precision.

During the observed training mission, a Cessna aircraft, dubbed “the bird dog,” led the charge alongside a Dash 8-400 air tanker. The bird dog assumes the role of the lead plane, charting the strategy and guiding the tanker to its drop zones. Gahan illustrated the process of marking drop locations using smoke emitted by the bird dog, followed by the tanker’s precise discharge of retardant or water onto the designated targets.

In the realm of aerial firefighting, pilots operate in close proximity, akin to a coordinated military operation. Gahan highlighted the mission-style approach, emphasizing teamwork in achieving the common goal of combating wildfires. He also stressed the rapid deterioration of conditions over a fire, with smoke, debris, and wind posing constant challenges.

Precision is paramount in aerial firefighting, with pilots trained to release retardant or water at an optimal height of 100 feet above the tree canopy. Dropping too high compromises accuracy, underscoring the significance of meticulous execution.

With the surge in wildfires comes an augmented demand for firefighting aircraft. Conair addresses this need by repurposing Dash 8-400 passenger airliners into air tankers. Despite the aircraft’s discontinuation, Conair procures used models worldwide, converting them by stripping seats and installing a 10,000-liter tank.

Conair’s accelerated refurbishment rate, from one aircraft per year to five every 75 days, underscores its commitment to meeting the escalating demand. Jeff Berry, Conair’s vice-president of business development, hails this endeavor as a Canadian success story, citing the aircraft’s power and versatility in addressing global firefighting needs.

In essence, the collaborative efforts of aerial firefighting teams, exemplified by Conair’s proactive measures, underscore the resilience and adaptability required in combating the escalating threat of wildfires.

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