Canada: Aircraft and Forest Fire Control in Canada (IFFN No. 11 – July 1994)


Aircraft and Forest Fire Control in Canada

(IFFN No. 11 – July 1994)

A pioneer in the use of aircraft for forest fire patrol, Canada has become a recognized world leader in the development of effective and cost-efficient ways of using aircraft for forest fire fighting. In recent years, several foreign countries with forest protection problems have either sent their personnel to Canada or hosted visits by our experts to learn how we use forest fire attack aircraft.

It’s now a little over 42 years since an Ontario Lands and Forests Beaver aircraft made the first recorded fire bombing attack in Canada, dropping water-filled paper bags on a fire north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Since then, federal, provincial and territorial forestry services, as well as private industry, have made a concentrated effort to determine how best to use the airplane, the most valuable single weapon in their firefighting arsenal.

There was a time when aircraft were considered so expensive, compared to other fire control methods, they were used only when all other measures had failed: a costly practice that did nothing to reduce fire losses. Now, forest fire fighters know the key to efficient fire suppression is rapid initial attack; hitting each potentially dangerous fire while it’s still small. It’s the aircraft’s ability to attack fast, hard and often, in the most difficult terrain, that makes it the fire fighter’s best initial attack resource.

Since the adoption of the initial attack concept in Canada, more fires are being controlled sooner and the area burned per fire is decreasing, hence most other negative effects of forest fires are also declining.

The Attack Aircraft

Our forest services use a wide range of forest protection aircraft including light single-engined planes for detection patrol, faster twin-engined types for air attack control and the ubiquitous helicopter for transportation, observation and fire bombing. But it’s the fixed-wing fire attack aircraft that represents the heavy artillery in the continuing war against fire.

Canada’s current fleet of fixed-wing attack aircraft consists of two types: scoopers and tankers. Scoopers are amphibians or floatplanes capable of scooping water “on the fly” from a lake or river near the fire, injecting a foam concentrate into the water load and dropping it on the fire as a smothering foam.

Scoopers can attack single or multiple fires for several hours at a time, scooping and dropping thousands of litres of water and foam as fast as they can shuttle to and from the nearest water. Tankers are land-based planes which carry fire-retardant chemicals to fires from mixing installations at strategically located airports.

The major deciding factor as to whether a particular region uses scoopers or tankers is the availability of scoopable water. Provinces with an abundance of lakes and rivers such as Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, use scoopers, while other jurisdictions including British Columbia, New Brunswick and the Yukon use tankers. Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories operate a mix of scoopers and tankers. P.E.I. doesn’t have firefighting aircraft of its own but borrows their services from neighbouring provinces when the situation demands.

In 1992, about 200 fixed-wing attack aircraft, ranging from 1,000-litre-capacity floatplanes to the mighty 20,000-litre-capacity Mars flying boat, and a similar number of helicopters, fought forest fires in Canada. Altogether they dropped about 200 million litres of water, foam and retardants. The mainstay of the scooper force is a fleet of 48 Canadair CL-215s, each carrying 5,350 litres, while the major portion of the tanker fleet is divided equally between the 4,500-litre B-26 and the 3,300-litre Firecat/Tracker.

Solving the Problem of Deployment 

There is no doubt that, when compared to other methods of controlling forest fires, aircraft are expensive to buy and operate, but when used effectively, they are fully capable of saving the equivalent of an entire season’s operating cost in a single mission by stopping one potentially disastrous fire. The perennial question facing the individual fire control officer is, however, which of several fires burning simultaneously in the region are potentially disastrous? 

How to pinpoint the most threatening fires and when and how best to use attack aircraft have been subjects of considerable research ever since the airplane arrived on the forest fire scene. The computer eventually provided researchers with the tool that enabled them to integrate the results of 50 years of studies into a fire behaviour model able to predict the direction and rate of spread of a fire. 

By applying more recent high-tech developments to fire management, researchers are now able to forecast, with remarkable accuracy, under what circumstances fires are most likely to occur. 

Today, sophisticated communication systems transmit weather forecasts and the degree of fire hazard twice daily to all forest centres across the country. Weather conditions in the forest are reported regularly by unmanned automatic weather stations. Storms are tracked by radar, and lightning strikes are plotted by lightning detectors. 

This information, combined in a computer program with the history of fire in the locality and the type and condition of the forest obtained from satellite remote sensing, helps the fire control officer predict where a fire is likely to start and how serious it could become. 

Armed with this intelligence, the control officer knows where and when to send out fire detection patrols. With the aid of the Global Positioning System (GPS) the pilot can determine the precise position of a fire and save precious minutes by guiding the air attack controller and fire attack aircraft directly to the scene. 

Another recent innovation provides the air attack controller with Forward Looking Infra-red Radar (FLIR) to see through smoke and locate targets and hazards for the attack aircraft. Similar airborne infrared scanning devices map large fires to help the ground attack boss plan strategy. Fire researchers are now using artificial intelligence to devise ways of forecasting resource needs and providing the fire control officer with a decision tool to help determine the resources to use and how best to deploy them. 

CIFFC and the National Air Tanker Fleet 

It is obvious the fire control officer is getting some much-needed help determining where and when to send available resources, but what does the officer do if all aerial resources are deployed and the situation is still not under control? This is where the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), the Mutual Air Resource Sharing Agreement (MARS), the CL-215 Cooperative Supply Agreement and the National Air Tanker Fleet enter the picture. Formed in 1982 and based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, CIFFC coordinates the MARS agreement between provinces and territories regarding the sharing of information and fire fighting equipment, personnel and aircraft. During the fire season, the Centre issues daily reports regarding fire situation and resource availability and controls the movement of elements of the National Air Tanker Fleet. The fleet consists of 17 Canadair CL-215s purchased by the Federal Government under the CL-215 cooperative Supply Agreement of September 1983. 

Under this agreement, developed by members of the Canadian Council of Resource and Environment Ministers concerned at the rapidly approaching obsolescence of fixed-wing fire attack aircraft, the federal and six provincial governments acquired a total of 29 CL-215s to supplement the 20 CL-215s already operated by Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. 

The federally-owned fleet aircraft are leased to Newfoundland, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories for a period of 15 years. The lessee provinces are responsible for operating and maintaining them and making them available to other members, as directed by the Centre, when not required for higher priority situations in their own jurisdictions. Title to the aircraft will be transferred to the lessees when the leases expire. 

The problems usually accompanying equipment transfers between operating agencies are largely avoided in the case of fleet transfers because almost all regions have their own CL-215s and can rapidly integrate transferred aircraft into their operations; so rapidly in fact that, on occasion, visiting CL-215s have been directed to fires while still en route to the host destination. 

Further performance improvements to Canada’s scooper fleet have already begun with the introduction into service of the CL-215T, a turboprop-powered conversion of the piston-engined CL-215. The 215T reaches fires faster and drops over 25 per cent more suppressant in a typical three-hour mission. And fire fighting productivity will be further improved when, in 1994, Canadair begins delivering its CL-415, a new-generation amphibian carrying 15 percent more fire fighting load than its predecessors. 

Canada’s expertise in producing aircraft expressly for fire control is generating valuable export business. To date, Canadair has sold 102 CL-215s, 215T conversions and 415s to foreign customers: transactions worth, with spares and support, over $650 million. And Conair of Abbotsford, B.C., has sold or leases twenty Firecats and other tankers overseas and is presently developing a fire control centre and initial attack system for Mexico. Forest fire control in Canada has come a long way from being largely a matter of intuition and personal experience. Today, the growing list of achievements resulting from a combination of thorough research, imaginative planning and modern technology, while unlikely to ever win the war against fire, will certainly help turn many potential battles into minor skinnishes.



From: Ron Pickler
Bombardier Inc.
Canadair Amphibious Aircraft Division
P.O.Box 6087
CDN – Montreal, Quebec H3C 3G9

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