One of the last groups from Conair’s Abbotsford-based fleet departed Sunday, May 29 for Prince George, ready to respond to wildfires in the Cariboo region.
The skimmer Fire Boss team will be situated in Prince George until September and is part of a diverse fleet of aerial firefighting aircraft that have been placed since the end of April at airtanker bases close to where forest fires occur.
Bases with Conair aircraft include Lac La Biche, Slave Lake and Whitecourt in Alberta; Fort St. John, Kamloops, Penticton, and Prince George in British Columbia; Palmer and Fairbanks in Alaska; and Whitehorse in the Yukon.
Conair owns and operates 70 aircraft, including Bird Dog aircraft, amphibious waterbombers and airtankers.
Bird Dog aircraft are the smaller command and control aircraft that fly over fires. They consist of a pilot plus a government agency air attack officer who strategizes and coordinates the aerial response, communicating with fixed-wing and rotary aircraft plus ground crews.
Often the Bird Dog will lead airtankers into position, releasing a burst of vapour to indicate where the airtankers should place drops. The Bird Dog is also outfitted with a siren to alert those on the ground of an imminent release.
Amphibious waterbombers include the Fire Boss skimmers – positioned throughout B.C. – plus Alberta government-owned CL215T super scoopers, which Conair maintains and operates.
Fire Boss skimmers operate in squads, often four aircraft to a group, cooling flames so firefighters on the ground can create containment lines.
Each aircraft can drop up to 3,028 litres at a time, with a group of four capable of dropping over 12,000 litres on a fire within seconds.
The fast and flexible aircraft will work a continuous loop between a fire and a nearby water body for hours, if needed, performing exceptionally well in mountainous terrain, operating in remote locations.
The CL215T super scooper operates in a similar manner. However, it is larger, often working in pairs, with each aircraft capable of dropping more than 5,000 litres of water with each pass.
“It is a very challenging job skimming water from lakes,” said Jeff Berry, director of business development with Conair.
“The pilot must take into account altitude, temperature, wind direction and speed, plus wave height, direction and debris, in addition to maneuvering in hot, smoky conditions with steep terrain nearby.”
He said is also physically challenging to control the skimming process in the hand-controlled cockpit.
“Lakes and rivers that are clear of watercraft and drones are essential to ensuring safe operations. While the aircraft look small in the air, they are actually very large and have no ability to stop or turn on a dime. If the group is operating in the area, please continue in your planned direction and stay near the shoreline,” Berry said.
While water drops happen directly on the fire to reduce a fire’s heat, retardant drops happen on the perimeter of the fire, often in front, to slow a wildfire’s progression.
Retardant is a solution of fertilizer and thickeners that coats vegetation after its water has evaporated. This coating slows combustion, reducing the fire’s speed, giving firefighters on the ground time to contain flames.
Retardant is dropped by airtankers, such as the smaller Air Tractor, larger RJ85 jet, or the new Dash 8-400 airtanker.
Retardant drops are often sequential, with each drop building on the last to create a long containment line around the head of the fire or flanks, avoiding waterways and working around natural fire breaks such as roads.
“If you see an airtanker drop outside of the fire, they didn’t miss, they are getting ahead of the fire,” Berry said.
“The retardant is specifically coloured red so that those in the sky and on the ground can see it. Pilots aim to place subsequent drops with no gaps, as gaps are areas where the fire could escape through.
“The aircraft don’t put out the fires; firefighters on the ground do. We are there to support their efforts.”
For over 50 years Conair has partnered with governments around the globe, providing the largest fixed-wing, privately owned fleet of aerial firefighting aircraft in the world to protect people, communities and resources from wildfires.