“Around 20 or 30 years ago, the number of days you could have a devastating fire in a season might have been two or three,” shared Jeff Berry, an aerial firefighting expert with more than 45 years of experience spanning three continents. “Now it can be 40 or 50, or even 80 days a year, where the wrong start, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, produces a catastrophic result.”
For nearly a decade, Berry has been with Conair Aerial Firefighting – the largest privately owned operator of fixed-wing aerial firefighting aircraft in the world, helping to battle wildfires in Australia, Canada, the US and Europe, with a fleet of 70. Before Conair, Berry led the aerial firefighting team in British Columbia (BC), Canada, for the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS), managing over 50 aircraft across nearly one million km2 of diverse geography.
From bushfires in Australia to the peaty tundra blazes in Alaska, mixed conifers in the US to grass fires in the prairies, the Conair fleet has responded to it all, in many regions of the world.
“In BC alone, responders fight fires in deserts, grasslands, forests and mountainous conditions, from sagebrush through dense pine,” said Berry. “With farms, houses, cabins and small communities dotting the landscape, surrounded by wildfire risk.”
The best response is a quick attack. “Most wildfires don’t end in natural disaster. But the five per cent that do – fueled by prolonged periods of heat, drought, low humidity and strong winds – cause 90 per cent of the damage through loss of life, infrastructure and resources,” continued Berry. “It is these fires that we must stop before they take off. That means boots on the ground and wheels up within minutes of detection, no matter where you are.”
The primary goal of any wildfire response is containment, to slow spread and intensity. Factors including fuel type, terrain, humidity, wind and temperature, plus any assets under threat – such as homes, power lines, agricultural land or communities – are considered by agencies when a fire starts. “The likelihood of success in gaining control is dependent on a near instantaneous analysis of real-time data, plus rapid deployment of all emergency response teams, from ground to air. If it takes more than 15 minutes from detection to a decision to action, you have lost the battle,” said Berry. “Sometimes all a fire needs in the wrong conditions is minutes, and it will be weeks, or months, before you catch up with Mother Nature.”
The analysis of which aircraft to deploy for a wildfire should be conducted well before it starts, even years prior. “You know it’s coming – it’s not an if, it’s a when. At BCWS, we proactively assessed each region of the vast province, identifying fuel type, mapping terrain, studying history and evaluating threats, all before the fire season started. Then we strategically placed our fleet of helicopters, amphibious water bombers and retardant airtankers at multiple airtanker bases throughout the province, so our air assets would be in the best position to respond fast to a wildfire start in the area,” Berry explained. “You don’t want your entire fleet in one spot, hundreds of kilometers from where fires typically occur, because your response time will be too long. Similarly, you don’t want water bombers in areas where there isn’t an abundance of water bodies to skim from. It’s about positioning the right aircraft in the right spot.”
It’s about positioning the right aircraft in the right spot
A balanced fleet at each tanker base, selected according to environment, is ideal. Each air asset has a different job. If a wildfire is deemed a high potential threat, the best response is for a large airtanker to be immediately deployed, taking off within 10 minutes of dispatch. It drops a long line of retardant around the head of the fire, slowing spread. Amphibious water bombers follow immediately after, dropping directly on the fire to reduce heat, making continuous loops from skimming to dropping, while the tanker reloads for another retardant drop, often returning within 20 minutes. These aircraft work in concert with each other until firefighters on the ground arrive.
After the airtanker has laid a line of retardant around the perimeter, it either departs for another mission or returns to support with water drops. Helicopters and smaller, single-engine aircraft work the long term, running smaller drops on the fire as aerial support for ground crews. “At each tanker base, a balanced fleet that incorporates helicopters, water bombers and large retardant airtankers offers the best possible response,” Berry added. “It’s about air assets working together, maximizing the benefits of each type’s role. In extreme wildfire incidents, you need every tool in the box to minimize damage.
“Unfortunately, sometimes you learn the hard way that fires have changed,” Berry admitted. “One example was in the Okanagan of BC one summer, a Mediterranean-like environment with desert conditions, mountains, sagebrush and ponderosa pine – with hot, dry, low humidity and afternoon winds. Lightning sparked multiple fires in the area, nearly all threatening structures. We had deployed a fleet of water bombers to one, while our airtankers responded to another.”
Berry continued: “When the start looked quelled on the first fire, we dispatched water bombers to take over for the airtankers, but the first fire wasn’t out – it had retreated into the roots and reignited. The wind blew it up in size, taking off before ground crews could contain it. I then learned that you need both water and retardant on a fire: water to cool the flames, retardant to surround it, slowing the advance. Retardant coats the fuel, staying on it long after the water in its mix has evaporated, slowing combustion. Extreme fires are even worse to control now, with water drops evaporating before they hit the ground. Using both resources is a necessity.”
Anticipating, adapting and acting are all key to a successful emergency response. Advance planning, strategic positioning and a balanced fleet are necessary to effectively hold back wildfires until firefighters can put them out. “To complicate matters, what we are seeing now in the world is a lack of supply of aerial firefighting aircraft,” said Berry.
Anticipating, adapting and acting are all key to a successful emergency response
“Conair has 70, and the large majority are on long-term, multi-year contracts with government agencies who have proactively secured their fleets, so they are ready to respond when the time comes. None of our aircraft sit idle during fire seasons. Delivery of a new Dash 8-400 airtanker, converted in-house at Conair for sale to government agencies, is at least a year from order date, and that is the fastest you can get a new aerial firefighting aircraft. Most of them will take years to deliver. Agencies looking to enhance fleets with additional support need to plan for the future today. If you are putting out a tender a month before your fire season, you are too late.”
We can add to this a global pilot shortage. Aerial firefighting requires a unique skillset, with experienced individuals operating in chaotic airspaces and challenging environmental conditions, performing handheld, low-speed, low-level flying. “Globally, we need to train crews at the same pace as demand. Gone are the days of training pilots over an actual fire, qualifying only a handful per year. We need them better and faster, before they’re even deployed,” Berry said. “At Conair, we put safety first, investing over $20 million in a Mission Training System – the only one of its kind in the world where pilots can fly in six Flight Training Devices (replicas of our aircraft), over the same simulated wildfire together, experiencing a virtual environment that mimics real life, with complex radio chatter and fire behavior responding to drops and weather.” From this safe environment, crews debrief each mission and learn from errors. “When they arrive on-site at the tanker base for the season, it’s like they are on day 30, not day one. It’s safer, more effective training. As the motto goes, train like you fight, fight like you train,” explained Berry. This type of simulated methodology is especially useful for responding in different countries where procedures, language and assets differ. Crews can train with government agency officers in advance in these safe environments, learning how to integrate successfully. “That way, everyone is prepared to hit go, effectively executing missions together, containing the fire and coming home safely,” concluded Berry. “It’s all about having the right resources at the right time.”