The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) publishes a daily update of all the forest fires across Canada during the fire season. By 15 September 2023 – the last day of daily updates – there were still 529 fires that were ‘out of control’. Indicative of the worst fire season that Canada has ever seen, 2023 has broken records with fires tearing through parts of the country that are usually safe from danger. Of the extent to which the wildfires took hold this year, CIFFC officials told AirMed&Rescue: “Based on the seasonal forecasts produced prior to the season, we did anticipate seeing significant fire activity across the country. However, the intensity and duration of the season surpassed our expectations.” Efforts to prepare, contain and diminish the outbreaks of fire throughout the country were redoubled, and even supplemented by international aid; however, the number, size and duration of the burning overwhelmed resources and contributed to 2023 being the worst year on record for wildfires. “This has been a historic season and has been the most challenging season for CIFFC since the organization’s inception in 1982,” said CIFFC officials.
Canada suffers from being the second largest country by area, on a similar scale to China, but with only a 35th of its population. Such a large, rural and natural country combined with climate change results in more wildfires that can crop up in inaccessible areas and manage to grow unchecked until they encroach on an inhabited area, by which time, it may be too late to contain or extinguish them. Where there are fires that need to be fought, the vast distances and the obstacles to ground transport mean that aerial firefighting is a resort that is rarely called upon in small and more densely populated countries like the UK. Furthermore, knowing how much to prepare for is difficult, as explained by Sarah Allen, the Provincial Coordinator at the Communications and Mitigation Unit for the Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES) branch of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in Ontario: “The number, size, intensity of wildland fires and the amount of area they burn are highly variable. The occurrence and intensity of forest fires is heavily influenced by weather patterns, which could change from one year to the next.”
The wide scale of the problem and the intensity was also recognized by Sergio Fukamati, Director of the Firefighting Division of SEI Industries – manufacturers of the Bambi Bucket – who said: “Canada experienced a devastating loss of more than 15 million hectares of forest this year, doubling the previous record ... Typically, wildfires in Canada are more prominent in the western provinces, but this year, they started earlier and extended from the Northwest Territories all the way to the eastern provinces. On the west coast, the level of rain has been significantly lower than normal, prolonging the drought period. The situation was no different in the neighboring US state of Washington.”
The season started at level 1, as would be expected, but rapidly escalated to level 5 (extreme) on 11 May
Starting at the end of April 2023, the CIFFC published a daily report on the fire situation. Each report can be broken down into numerous factors, including new fires, active fires and area burned, with a breakdown for each region and the category of the fires. These reports also indicate a national preparedness level, from 1 – where the fire danger and response needed is low – to 5, where the requirements are extreme and response to the need is inadequate. During the 2022 fire season, the preparedness level never breached a 3, which although still ‘high’, was only for two and half weeks at the end of July and start of August. The rest of the season was either a level 2 (moderate) for six weeks or a level 1 for the remainder of the season. This year, however, was an entirely different story. The season started at level 1, as would be expected, but rapidly escalated to level 5 (extreme) on 11 May and did not dip until 8 September, where it has remained at level 4 (very high) up to the time of writing.
Due to the size of Canada, not every province or territory has the same season as the rest of the nation and some start later and end later, with their own particular climates. Allen added: “The province of Ontario’s fire season officially ends on October 31. In late spring and early summer 2023, Ontario experienced increased fire activity, following a slower-than-average start to the fire season. At that time, we were seeing warmer and drier conditions, combined with heavy and widespread lightning that contributed to an increase in fires. Since then, fire activity has de-escalated significantly following more seasonal precipitation values and temperatures throughout July and early August, resulting in a more manageable fire situation overall.”
Noting the rapid escalation of the firefighting season that is only just beginning to abate, Jeff Berry, Vice President, Business Development, for Canadian aerial firefighting organization Conair, said: “Our first group to deploy this year was our team of four Air Tractor AT802s with a bird dog lead plane to Whitecourt, Alberta in April. On the same day that they landed in Alberta, they filled up their tanks with retardant and missioned to a wildfire. That set the stage for the fire season in Canada for the year, which started early and didn’t let up. We still have three large Dash 8-400AT airtankers operating in Canada at the end of September. It is only just starting to wane now, with welcome rain and cooler temperatures in the west.”
Our first group to deploy this year was our team of four Air Tractor AT802s with a bird dog lead plane to Whitecourt, Alberta in April. On the same day that they landed in Alberta, they filled up their tanks with retardant and missioned to a wildfire
Fire knows no borders
The wildfires in Canada have broken the carbon emissions records. The previous record set in 2014 was for 138 megatons released, whereas this year has already produced well over 400 megatons and counting. This speaks to the size of the raging infernos that have marched across the landscape. The biomass destroyed to generate that amount of carbon constitutes a covering of 18.5 million hectares, equivalent to the entire area of Syria. This amount of fire collectively had consequences beyond what you would expect from isolated wildfires. Smoke and toxic gas spread over the entire east coast of North America. Dangerous smog reached New York City and as far south as parts of Florida in June, causing alerts for unhealthy air quality in over a dozen US states. The air quality on 7 June reached the worst toxic air pollution the USA had experienced in recorded history. People were warned to stay indoors with windows closed, but even then, the air pervaded living spaces and reduced the quality to unhealthy levels. There are fears that the young and vulnerable will experience an increase in lung development and breathing disorders in the future as a direct consequence of the wildfires this year.
The close proximity and close ties between Canada and the USA have meant that even though America was suffering from its own wildfires, it wasn’t quite as overwhelmed as Canada and was able to send support. The US Department of the Interior (DOI), US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Services (USFS), and state wildland firefighting and support personnel, coordinated through the US National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) – including six airtankers and two helicopters – were sent to Canada at the height of summer to aid with tackling the most urgent and destructive fires. But this aid goes both ways, internally and abroad: “Ontario has been supporting other fire agencies with fire suppression activities,” said Allen. “To date, we have deployed a total of 491 personnel to assist the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, as well as the Yukon, Northwest Territories and the [US] state of Minnesota so far this season. We continue to provide support in the form of forest firefighters, overhead staff, incident management teams and wildland fire suppression equipment to other jurisdictions.”
It wasn’t just the USA that was drafted in to help: “This year, we had to seek assistance beyond our current partnerships to meet the demand for firefighters and fire management specialists,” said CIFFC officials. “We established interim agreements with countries with which we had no previous relationship.” They added: “With nearly 6,500 fires to date and 18.5 million hectares burned, this was a historic and very busy fire season across Canada and at CIFFC. During the season, 12 countries (USA, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Costa Rica, Chile, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, France, South Korea) provided assistance and more than 4,000 international firefighters were mobilized across Canada.”
During the season, 12 countries (USA, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Costa Rica, Chile, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, France, South Korea) provided assistance and more than 4,000 international firefighters were mobilized across Canada
As well as utilizing foreign aid, Canada’s own associated resources were expanded to help with the fires and the consequences of the fires. The military were called in to aid and airlift citizens trapped in remote areas, particularly in the Northwest Territories when highways were blocked by the wildfires, cutting off communities from land routes of escape. The aerial rescues from the remote and rural areas holding a sparser population were made even more difficult when the wildfires knocked out phone services, hampering evacuation and coordination efforts. As well as for evacuation services, the military were using aircraft to transport firefighters and firefighting equipment to areas of most need. After experiencing the need for full commitment of resources across the length and breadth of Canada and overseas, Conair’s large fleet of fixed-wing firefighting aircraft had to adapt and adjust to cope with the growth in requirements: “Our entire fleet operated this year at maximum capacity, with agencies sharing contracted resources where possible. For example, two of our Dash 8-400AT airtankers on contract with Alaska were loaned by the state to Alberta for a significant portion of the season. Dash 8-400AT airtankers destined for contracts in Washington State started a month early to assist Alberta. And as soon as we certified a new Dash 8-400AT, fresh out of manufacturing in the summer, it was placed on contract. It was a challenging, long fire season,” said Berry.
As well as physical resources, financial investment to help with the allocation of the expected and the developing need for tools and personnel is having to grow to meet the demands of greater and worse fires. Ontario’s budget is detailed by Allen: “Over the previous four fiscal years, the year-start allocation has actually increased from CA$68.9 million to $99.9 million and at the beginning of the 2023–24 fiscal year, the Ministry has been allocated $134.9 million in funding to protect people, property, and natural resources from wildland fires.
“As fire season severity can fluctuate each year, the year-start allocation is intended to support emergency firefighting activity until a point in the fire season when the total costs can be accurately predicted. Additional funds may be requested during or after the fire season based on the number, size, and complexity of fires, and the resources required to manage them.”
The geography of Canada is diverse. From Arctic tundra in the far north to mountains in the west, the gigantic lakes throughout and every other kind of land in between, the Canadian countryside is something to marvel at and makes for some of the grandest vistas. However, it also presents challenges for firefighters when tasked with fighting and controlling the wildfires that raged across the country this year. Every different type of aircraft was needed to fight the fires because every situation and environment was affected by them. The presence of lakes across large parts of the country allows scoopers and snorkels to refill tanks, and buckets to be replenished in proximity to many of the fires. This meant that the smaller Fire Bosses and lighter helicopters were used as much as the large airtankers and heavier-lift rotorcraft.
This diversity, and its history of fighting fires, elevates Canada to the top of the aerial firefighting industry, with technology, science and experience being called for in other countries around the world
This diversity, and its history of fighting fires, elevates Canada to the top of the aerial firefighting industry, with technology, science and experience being called for in other countries around the world. Berry said: “Canada’s operational wildfire expertise leads the global industry, each year battling wildfires in the second largest country in the world with the third-largest forested area in the world. Agencies, especially in the west, use all the tools in the toolbox. They use both retardant to slow flames and water to cool flames, buying firefighters time to contain the fires. They use the aircraft that are the most effective for each region’s varied terrain and water sources, reaching fires fast from remote bases. They use bird dog lead planes to coordinate an air attack, ensuring maximum effectiveness of drops.”
The demand for buckets and firefighting technology as well as the aircraft to manage the blazes was also recognized by Fukamati: “The level of activity in both our Bambi Bucket and Fire Ignition product lines exceeded our forecasts for Canada. Being closer to the operators’ bases on the west coast, there was also a heightened demand for maintenance and services during the summer.”
Continuing to burn
At the time of writing, there continue to be well over 900 active fires across Canada and over 500 that are out of control. There doesn’t seem to be an enormous abatement of the number and intensity of the fires; in previous years, the National Preparedness Level would normally have returned to 1 – low – by September. Canada’s Natural Resources Minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, stated that he thought it possible that some of the fires may remain active throughout winter. This has implications for firefighting organizations, which often use this downtime to service, maintain and repair their aircraft, and also to rest, train, and maintain currency checks for crew. As contracts are fulfilled, aircraft are already in their maintenance period to get them ready to go again: “Every aircraft in the fleet undergoes heavy maintenance between each contract period,” explained Berry. “The aircraft that just finished operations in Canada and France this summer are now in a rigorous maintenance schedule, performed by our large team of aircraft maintenance professionals.”
If the fires continue to burn, then the staff and craft will be fatigued and unprepared for the season in 2024, especially if next year is also disastrously overwhelming. Regular training and using the most realistic simulators can help prepare pilots and crew for the trials of their chosen profession and ensure that it becomes second nature to be able to operate in situations and emergencies. In anticipation for this year, Berry said: “Fortunately, our 90 plus pilots were well prepared after intensive spring training, including time spent operating in our Mission Training System, an aerial firefighting simulator platform, which allows pilots to practice together over the same simulated wildfire at the same time, using six flight training devices, each exact replicas of our fleet.”
Similarly, if the northern and southern hemispheres start to overlap with their fire seasons, the cooperative partnerships between countries in the north supplying vehicles and services to the south in the off season – and vice versa – will diminish. This will leave everyone with more difficult decisions to make when the flexibility of available resources is harder to come by. In June, the CIFFC made requests of the Australian New South Wales Rural Fire Service for personnel and services, a request that will become harder to agree to in future if Australia’s fire season extends through their own winters in the coming years. Furthermore, in May, the
The key takeaway from a global perspective is that what happened in Canada – a country well prepared for wildfires – can happen anywhere in the world
Argentinean Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development signed a letter of intent with the Canadian Commercial Corporation to purchase firefighting assets, equipment and services. The Canadian government will have to accelerate its ability to fulfill this requirement if it is busy continuing to fight fires and building domestic resources through the next few fire seasons, especially if the volume, size and intensity of the wildfires remain at the level experienced in 2023. More preparation and more resources are a clarion call from the industry: “There is always room for improvement,” said Berry. “While [countries that fight wildfires] employ all the tools, they need more tools: more airtankers, more equipment and more firefighters. But the key takeaway from a global perspective is that what happened in Canada – a country well prepared for wildfires – can happen anywhere in the world. Other countries are evaluating their level of preparedness based on Canada’s challenges this year. Aerial firefighting aircraft, for instance, are in very short supply. Conair is the only manufacturer in the world capable of converting a large airtanker every 75 days from its hangars in Canada. Agencies see the need to keep pace with the changing environment, while recognizing that demand for large airtankers outweighs supply. The time to prepare for future wildfires is now,” he concluded.
Although the hope is that next year won’t be as bad in Canada, it can’t be ruled out, and that is not to say other countries won’t also break their own records. Fukamati said: “I find it unlikely that we will surpass this new record next year, but we do believe it could be another busy year. Since we sell and service worldwide, we are always prepared for a busy fire season overall. If not Canada, it will be another country or region. Mega fires have become a global phenomenon.”
While preparations for next year are being made, there is still a focus on managing the current threat, CIFFC officials said: “It’s hard to predict the weather that far in advance. Given that there is still some fire activity in parts of the country, our focus is on assisting the provinces/territories that still require resource-sharing coordination. As the activity slows down, we will meet with our partners to discuss this year’s season and prepare for 2024.”
As the activity slows down, we will meet with our partners to discuss this year’s season and prepare for 2024.
As fires are still burning, the general public are encouraged to check the internet and social media to stay up to date with the wildfire situation in their local area, one of best ways for them to stay informed and aware of changes and developments that may actively affect them on a day-to-day basis until the threat has lessened. For the residents of Ontario, Allen stated: “Ontarians can stay up to date on the current forest fire situation across the province, including current restrictions, by visiting the forest fire information page at Ontario.ca/forestfire or following us on Twitter @ONforestfires. These channels are updated regularly to ensure the ministry is providing relevant and up-to-date information on the fire season and our efforts.”