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Airborne firefighters are only minutes away from assisting those in and around Osoyoos
When a wildfire erupted in the sagebrush above Spotted Lake in August, it was a matter of minutes before airborne firefighters were circling through the overhead smoke.
Soon an air tanker swooped down over the flames and dropped a spray of red fire retardant. Meanwhile, helicopters were carrying water from a nearby pond and dropping it onto the inferno.
How could this airborne fire crew arrive so quickly? And with so many aircraft on the scene at once and thick smoke obscuring the view, how do they avoid collision?
Those are some of the questions we asked when the Osoyoos Times recently visited the Penticton Air tanker Base.
The base is housed in a small unassuming building set back from the Penticton airport. Inside, Ben Moerkoert, an air attack officer with B.C. Forest Service, is standing by with the team of pilots, who work for the contractor Air Spray Aviation Services.
Outside the building, the tarmac is heavily stained with rusty red fire retardant. Two propeller planes are parked on the runway.
One is the tanker, a converted 1950s vintage Electra L188, which once served as a passenger plane. According to legend on the base, one of its early passengers was a young actress named Marilyn Monroe. The former passenger compartment has now been stripped down to the plane’s bare ribs.
Behind it sits a much smaller plane, a Turbo Commander 690, known as the bird dog. It is here where Moerkoert rides in his flying command centre while pilot Pete Loeffler guides the plane over challenging burning terrain.
When the bird dog arrives over a fire, Moerkoert must quickly assess the situation taking into account the fire’s size, the strength and direction of winds, the terrain and amount of flammable plant material and whether or not the fire is close to structures such as houses.
“Pete’s the pilot and I’m the firefighter, so we’re a team,” said Moerkoert. “We go there and it’s my job with my experience level to look at it and see how the fire is burning and how rapidly and just what manpower it needs.”
In the recent Spotted Lake fire, Moerkoert realized quickly he was going to need additional support. He requested additional bombers, though ultimately it is up to headquarters to determine what resources can be spared and if it’s possible to send additional planes from another base such as Castlegar.
In the end, a total of five air tankers and two helicopters were used to fight the Spotted Lake fire, along with extensive ground crews.
Before any of this can happen, however, the crew must await the call and then quickly deploy.
It depends on the risk level whether the crew is standing by at the base waiting, or members are somewhere else in Penticton ready to be called in. When the fire risk is very high, the crew is on red alert meaning they stay at the base so they can be dispatched immediately.
When the hazard level is more moderate, they may be on a yellow alert meaning they have 30 minutes from when they are notified to when they must be rolling down the runway.
The day the Osoyoos Times visited the base, it followed some recent rains and the crew was on blue alert giving them up to an hour to respond.
Penticton is small enough that crew can be almost anywhere in the city and still have time to respond in a yellow or blue alert.
When the Spotted Lake fire occurred, the base was on yellow alert, but the crew was already at the base and was able to take off immediately.
Some days in the dry season, the crew is so busy they go from one fire to the next. Other times they are waiting around at the base, which is equipped with bunks, a kitchen and other amenities for an extended stay.
“We spend a lot of time playing poker,” admits Loeffler.
The centre in Kamloops assesses calls from the public reporting a fire before an ATR (air tanker request) is issued. In the case of Spotted Lake, there were enough initial public reports that it was immediately clear it was a significant fire.
“The reports were pretty solid that this fire was very aggressive and homes were threatened,” said Moerkoert. “The higher the risk to homes, property and lives, the faster the response is.”
Fire activity throughout the province including initial public reports and air tanker requests shows up on a computer screen at the base. The screen also shows the locations of aircraft. A “bong” is sounded when and air tanker request comes through.
The ATR also comes through on smart phones of any crew away from the base. Immediately Moerkoert and the pilots prepare the planes and ensure the tankers have sufficient retardant.
The retardant is a chemical mix similar to fertilizer, which is not toxic except in high concentration. It would be colourless, except that a colouring agent made from iron oxide – rust – is added so it can be seen when it is sprayed on the ground. It is mixed with water at a ratio that balances effectiveness with cost efficiency.
The tank is attached to the bottom of the plane and the retardant is released by gravity. Controls on the plane set the amount of retardant to be dropped as well as how thickly it is spread, and buttons at the pilots’ fingertips release the spray.
From the time they take off in Penticton until they reach a fire near Osoyoos, it’s only about eight to 10 minutes.
When the first tanker arrived at Spotted Lake, it dropped its load and returned to Penticton for more retardant.
It is Moerkoert’s job from the bird dog to direct where the retardant should go. The bird dog flies the route first, ensuring that it is safe for the tanker and indicating a safe exit route. The tanker pilot watches from overhead and then swoops down to follow.
With helicopters also working on the scene, was there a risk of confusion or collision?
The bird dog is the air attack platform and it controls the airspace, Moerkoert explained. He assigned the helicopters an area of the fire to work in as well as a maximum altitude where they would not interfere with the tankers.
A popular misconception about the tankers is that they are there to put out fires. Actually, it’s the ground crews that ensure the fires are put out. The role of the tankers is to slow the fire’s spread. For that reason, retardant is normally dropped not on the flames, but on the unburned plant material next to the fire.
“It’s retardant to retard the growth of the fire,” said Moerkoert. “You put chemicals on the fuels in advance of the fire, which pre-coats them to change the combustion process.”
Nor can fire retardant simply be dropped downwind from the fire because a large enough fire will simply jump over the retardant. Instead, firefighters may employ a technique called flanking, where they pinch the fire to slow it down from the sides.
Sometimes, as occurred in the Spotted Lake fire, the firefighters’ efforts may actually cause the wind to change direction as the fire cools down and less air is sucked in. Firefighters must work strategically in changing conditions.
“The first load was thrown in there to prevent the spread towards the nearest homes,” said Moerkoert. “Then we tried to minimize it at homes to the south where there are more of them, so we put something in there quicker. It meant a couple of homes to the east were still threatened when it came down the hill. It’s just risk management.”
For the airborne firefighters, the fire was considered under control when they had a good ring of retardant around it. For ground crews, however, the work of putting out hot spots continued well into the week.
Local residents were relieved the airborne firefighters got there so quickly.
And, as pilot Loeffler observed, given the number of wildfires in the area, it is lucky for Osoyoos that the Penticton Air tanker Base is so close by.