With out-of-control wildfires threatening several B.C. communities, air tanker crews from Central Alberta have been deployed to the province next-door to drop fire retardant on tinder-dry forests.
“It’s very intense… our crews are working full days,” said Paul Lane, chief operating officer for Air Spray Ltd., based at Red Deer Airport.
On Monday, several aerial firefighting crews were helping divert flames from the communities of 100 Mile House and Williams Lake in B.C.’s interior. Similar battles have been waged right across British Columbia, where 230 wildfires have been reported and 10,000 people are under an evacuation order.
Lane said some Alberta-based crews had previously been in the Kamloops area— and even into Washington State, where prolonged heat and no rain has created another wildfire hazard.
With this month’s unusually unremitting hot, dry spell, Air Spray was asked by the B.C. government to provide additional personnel and equipment to the three air tanker crews that were contracted to that province for the 2017 fire season.
This means a total of five Air Spray crews with about 30 people are now helping battling blazes across B.C. — including a crew that the Alberta government had kept on stand by, and has loaned to B.C. for its fire-fighting effort.
So far, Alberta has been spared large wildfires — although fire restrictions and some bans are in effect along our western boundary, stretching from the headwaters of the Red Deer River to Waterton Lakes National Park.
But if forest fires ignite during the hot spell that’s expected to return this week, Lane said, the two additional Air Spray crews that are now in B.C. could be called home.
Meanwhile in B.C.’s interior, the air tankers, guided by smaller “bird-dog” planes, are dropping fire retardant on gaps in the forests that were cleared by ground crew. “Hopefully the fire can’t jump these fire breaks,” said Lane.
The aerial effort supports firefighters on the ground, who also use spray hoses to contain the flames.
Lane said air tanker crews typically can’t get above a forest fire until the afternoon, when stronger winds tend to push away smoke and improve visibility for bird-dog planes to mark, through contrails, where the fire retardant should be dropped.
Every fire has its challenges, he said. “Some are in tight valleys, where you have to manoeuvre more to get in and out… some are moving fast, with high winds,” and visibility becomes a major issue.
This year, due to a wet spring in B.C. and Alberta, trees have produced a lot of new foliage. Unfortunately, this is adding fuel to the wildfires sparked during prolonged periods of heat and dryness, Lane added. But he noted Air Spray’s seasoned pilots and maintenance engineers are used to dealing with whatever comes along.
“This is our 50th year of operation. This is what we do for a living, and what we train for.”